Tag Archives: American Theatre

The agony and the ecstacy

Actors Theatre of Phoenix has seen plenty of both in recent months after announcing that a huge infusion of cash would be needed to complete their current season, then deciding to move forward with a 2012-2013 season announcement though still working to raise full funding.

So it’s fitting I suppose that the first show planned for their 2012-13 season is Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstacy of Steve Jobs.” Daisey and his play became the focus of significant controversy after NPR’s Ira Glass retracted a January episode of “This American Life” featuring Daisey and the play due to “significant fabrications” — and Daisey’s been bombarded with more bad news since.

Folks eager to explore Daisey’s own take on his work can read an article Daisey wrote that’s titled “The Sin of Activism” — published in the April 2012 issue of American Theatre magazine, which has featured works of late that celebrate its four key values — artistry, diversity, global citizenship and activism.

Turns out Daisey was trained to think of activism as a dirty word, but drifted in that direction as his work “circled more and more around the fundamental conflict between the human and the inhuman in our culture.” His article for American Theatre details the evolution of his thought, process and product.

Today he’s a converstion story. “Action is the root of theatre,” writes Daisey. “Activism is the public face of that action. We need an American theatre that recognizes this. Now more than ever.” And I suppose Actors Theatre wouldn’t mind folks heeding the call by advocating on their behalf.

Following Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstacy of Steve Jobs,” Actors Theatre will stage “Opus” by violinist-turned-playwright Michael Hollinger — which imagines a string quartet preparing to perform a hefty bit of Beethoven at the White House when the erratic behavior of their resident genius necessitates that someone else  (who’s younger, less experienced and female) take his place. Think rehearsal room as pressure cooker.

New is next to godliness at Actors Theatre, and thank heavens for it. Next up is “The Fox on the Fairway” by playwright Ken Ludwig — described by Actors Theatre as “one of America’s greatest living writers of farce.” Ludwig is well-known to theater folk for writing “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Crazy for You.” But now, it seems, he’s turned his attention to “one man’s eternal love affair with golf.”

Also “A Steady Rain.” This baby was written by Keith Huff, lauded by Actors Theatre for helping to write and produce a little something on AMC called “Mad Men” — which Huff says he’s left behind to pursue other projects. “A Steady Rain” follows a pair of Chicago police officers whose mutual loyalty is tested when an unfortunate decision begets guilt, fear and corruption.

Actors Theatre plans to close its 2012-13 season with “Good People” by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, whose “The Rabbit Hole” won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for best drama. It’s the tale of a single mother with a special needs daughter who moves to the suburbs in search of new opportunities after losing her dollar store gig. “Good People” was nominated in 2011 for a Tony Award, the year “War Horse” went home with best play honors.

Turns out there’s a lovely piece about “Good People” and Lindsay-Abaire in the current issue of American Theatre magazine as well. It’s penned by Christopher Wallenberg, who details the playwright’s own working class roots and growing realization that new American plays weren’t reflecting the real struggles of folks to make it in a land that sometimes fails to deliver on its promises.

New is nifty, but relevance rules — and it’s something that Actors Theatre of Phoenix is nearing nicely with its 2012-13 season, which reads more “everyday” than “high art” during a period in American life in which few can afford time with theater experiences that feel more luxury than real-life. Let’s hope that Actors Theatre has accurately gauged the pulse of its audience, something absolutely essential to keeping their own heart beating.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to learn about the May 10 movie theater broadcast of a live on-stage performance of “This American Life” (complete with dance and other fun things you can’t see through a radio) — and here to learn about Annie Baker’s “Body Awareness,” being performed by Actors Theatre through April 15.

Coming up: Photography on the fly

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The Bully Plays

Makers of the film “Bully” have announced that it’ll open March 30 in select theaters, and make its way to Harkins Theatres Camelview 5 in Scottsdale on April 13. Bullying is also the subject of a new collection of short works for young actors called “The Bully Plays,” compiled and edited by Linda Habjan and published in 2011 by Dramatic Publishing.

“The Bully Plays” includes two dozen 10-minute plays addressing bullying “between and among young people, their parents and siblings” from various perspectives — the bullies, the bullied and the bystanders. Issues addressed include gender, sexuality, physical condition, social status and more — plus ways technology has changed the nature and scope of bullying.

“Bullying is aggressive behavior intended to harm or show power over another person that is repeared over time,” according to Susan Sugerman, M.D., M.P.H., an adolescent medicine physician who wrote the book’s forward. Sugerman is also president and co-founder of Girls to Women Health and Wellness in Dallas. “Bullies,” she adds, “have a strong need to show their dominance over others or to get their own way.”

“Victims of bullying tend to be children who are less popular or new to a situation,” according to Sugerman. Youth with academic, physical, or social ‘differences’ may be at particular risk of being bullied — as are those who don’t conform to gender norms. “Victims,” adds Sugerman, “tend not to get along well with others, have few friends, and have low self-esteem.”

But why choose plays as a way to tackle the topic? “One way to approach such a universal problem,” says Habjan, “is to get it out into the open and provide young people with strategies to deal with it in creative and empowering ways.” And Sugerman concurs that “When art can be used to improve, not just imitate, life, we are all better off.”

Two of the 24 pieces in “The Bully Plays” were written by playwrights-in residence at Childsplay, a Tempe-based theater company specializing in “professional theatre for young audiences and families” currently celebrating its 35th season.

“Gasp, Farrah & Monster” was written by José Cruz González, whose “Tomás and the Library Lady” (based on Pat Mora’s book) opens April 7 at Tempe Center for the Arts. “The Bully Pulpit” was written by Dwayne Hartford, whose “The Color of Stars” opens a world premiere run at TCA April 22.

The diversity of plays included in this collection mirrors the breadth and depth of real life experiences facing today’s children and teens. There’s school violence, cyberbullying, suicide and more. Settings include ancient Greece, a teen girl’s bedroom, a school on lockdown, a circus, a courtroom and others. Each play lists characters, setting and time — making staging the works easy in theater, classroom or community settings. Cast size varies from two to 25+.

Titles include “Bystander Blues” (Trish Lindberg), “Flash Mob” (Elizabeth Wong), “The New Kid” (Richard Dresser) and “What Goes Around” (D.W. Gregory). Though written to be performed by and for young audiences, they’re also helpful for introducing student to reading works of theater and inspiring youth to try their own hand at playwriting. Most importantly, they serve as conversation starters.

Long before “bullying” landed front and center in the national dialogue, Mary Pipher, Ph.D. addressed tough issues facing adolescent girls in “Reviving Ophelia,” the first of eight books filled with insights gleaned from cultural anthropology and clinical psychology. Pipher describes “The Bully Plays” as “a tasty antidote to our toxic teen culture.”

“This collection of plays is funny, sad, powerful and important,” says Pipher. “Bullying is a catch-phrase for treating others as less than human. All of these plays help teenagers develop their moral imagination and see that there is no us/them. There is only  us.”

— Lynn

Note: For additional bullying prevention resources, visit Teaching Tolerance and the Anti-Defamation League. Click here for details about a March 30 screening of the film “Bully” at the Phoenix Film Festival.

Coming up: A teacher tale, Student art exhibits

Update: Click here to read “The Defenders” by Sharon L. Green. The article, which appears in the May/June 2012 issue of “American Theatre” magazine, addresses theater works that tackle bullying. 5/2/12

There’s no place like home

Fun souvenirs from "The Wizard of Oz" spotted during intermission at Mesa Arts Center

There’s no place like home — but sometimes we need to be reminded. Hence the timeless appeal of stories like L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” which is being brought to life on Valley stages this week thanks to Oz Theatre Company.

The show, originally adapted for the Royal Shakespeare Company by John Kane, features music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Yarburg. “The Wizard of Oz” is the first of four shows playing in Mesa and Phoenix as part of the 2011/12 Theater League season.

I attended a Dec. 7 matinee at the Mesa Arts Center, where several families — many spanning three generations — also enjoyed the show. A pair of elementary age boys told me the show was really funny, and several girls noted that “Dorothy did a really good job.” For some, it was the black terrier “Toto” who stole the show.

This family from Scottsdale (including a camera shy grandfather) told me they loved the show

Kerri McNeill, who recently earned a B.A. in theatre performance from Wagner College, makes her national touring debut as Dorothy Gale, and does a superb job. Her Dorothy is fresh and vibrant, with strong vocals — which explains the long list of “Past and Present of Wagner on Broadway” on the school’s website.

Patrick Pevehouse (Hank/Scarecrow) attended Oklahoma City University, Brian Maxseen (Hickory/Tinman) holds “a B.A. in make-believe from NYU/Tisch” and Brent Walker (Zeke/Lion) graduated with a BFA in musical theatre from the University of Central Florida. I notice these things more now that my own daughter is pursuing a BFA in acting at Pace University in NYC.

The trio’s collective performance is enchanting, bringing real warmth and humor to the stage. Audience members of all ages rewarded them often with laughter and applause, and also seemed especially smitten with Laurie Pascal in the roles of Miss Gulch and Wicked Witch of the West.

Kelly Karcher (Auntie Em/Glinda), Bryan Miner (Uncle Henry/Emerald City Guard), and Bob Pritchard (Professor Marvel/The Wizard of Oz) round out the very capable cast. The ensemble, which often breaks into old-school song and dance ala television variety shows of bygone days, adds real charm throughout.

Greasepaint Youtheatre actors ages 8 to 12 perform the role of Munchkin

Our own local actors, ten “Munchkins” from Greasepaint Youtheatre in Scottsdale, spend more time on stage than I’d expected — and fit right in with the rest of the cast. They’re perky, polished and professional, and I fully expect to be reviewing many of them in future touring productions. Enjoy them on Valley stages while you still can.

This production of “The Wizard of Oz” is a beautiful blend of storytelling and stagecraft for the young and young at heart. Never mind that cables are faintly visible as witches float through the air. It’s plenty magical for young audiences, as are projections that bring tornado debris, poppies and snow to life. The show features projections created by Second Home Productions, Aerographics by Flying by Foy and Special Effects by I & M Special Effects.

But I took more delight in the show’s colorful, creative costumes — plus imaginative wigs and hair props. The original set and costumes were designed by Tim McQuillen-Wright, and Bernie Ardia served as the original wig designer. Costume coordination and additional costume designs are the work of Jimm Halliday.

Head props, including tree branches that seem to grow like gravity-defiant pigtails dotted with shiny red apples, are the work of Liz Spray. Head wardrobe — no small feat in a show full of wonderfully whimsical hats, is by Jennifer Mohrman. Wigs are by Anthony Lauro. All enhance the show’s kid-friendly feel.

This Chandler family had lots of praise for the Wednesday matinee performance

After three performances at Mesa Arts Center, “The Wizard of Oz” now moves to the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Phoenix for a Dec. 8-11 run. It’s another intimate venue perfect for introducing young audiences to musical theater. Take your children now, before they’re grown and moved away. Memories created at the theater together remind us for a lifetime that there’s no place like home.

— Lynn

Note: Future shows in the 2011/12 Theater League season for Mesa and Phoenix include “My Fair Lady,” “The Rat Pack is Back!” and “Rock of Ages.” Learn more at www.theaterleague.com. Folks with a special interest in projections in theater design will enjoy David Barbour’s “The Prevalence of Projections” in the Dec. 2011 issue of American Theatre magazine.

Coming up: Strolling meets sculpture, Quilting for a cause

“The Sun Serpent”

An early rendering of "The Sun Serpent" set design

For two years, a unique collaboration of Valley artists and arts organizations have worked together to bring “The Sun Serpent” by José Cruz González to Valley  audiences. It’s being performed through Nov. 13 by Childsplay, a Tempe-based theater company specializing in works for young audiences and families.

“The Sun Serpent” is an adventure tale on a grand scale. It depicts the collision of worlds old and new as a boy struggles to save his family and preserve the memory of his Aztec culture, bringing the conquest of Mexico to life through captivating media, masks, music and more.

Entering the studio theater at Tempe Center for the Arts Saturday evening, I felt transported to another world. Lush rainforest scenes, the work of projection designer Adam Larsen, were projected onto three giant panels layered on each side of the stage.

Lights with a beautiful blend of blue and green, the work of lighting designer Tim Monson, shown down onto large Aztec images painted on the stage — the work of scenic designer Carey Wong. A gentle cloud of mist hovered over the stage as sounds of birds and other rainforest creatures, the work of sound designer Christopher Neumeyer, floated through the air. It was breathtaking.

“The Sun Serpent” marries the best of traditional storytelling with technology. As its three main characters — a young boy, his widowed grandmother and his older brother — face cultural shifts with diverse motivations and dreams, projections reflect their changing world.

We see foreign ships approaching the shore, villages consumed by fire, and journeys trekked over mountaintops — all part of a visual feast best suited for audience members ages 8 & above. There’s greed, death and betrayal. But also hope and courage. “The Sun Serpent,” says director Rachel Bowditch, “portrays the strength of the human spirit.”

The creative team also includes composer Daniel Valdez, costume designer Connie Furr-Soloman, mask designer Zarco Guerrero and puppet designer Jim Luther. Amy Gilbert, who recently made the move from Atlanta to Arizona, serves as stage manager.

David Saar has directed and taught for Childsplay since it began in 1977. Managing director Steve Martin, also president of the board for Arizona Citizens Action for the Arts, is enjoying his 11th season with Childsplay.

Just three actors peform 30 roles in the Childsplay production of “The Sun Serpent.” Andrés Alcalá (Tlememe), an associate artist with Childsplay since 2007, has also performed with Actors Theatre of Phoenix, the Southwest Shakespeare Company, Nearly Naked Theatre and Phoenix Theatre.

Ricky Araiza (Young/Elder Anáhuac), an Arizona native who attended Brophy College Preparatory, graduated from ASU in 2004 with a B.A. in theatre before pursuing additional training in ensemble-based physical theater. Araiza is a freelance acting and movement teacher studying mask-making with Zarco Guerrero.

Andréa Morales (Anci) previously spent five seasons as a Childsplay company member, but now lives in Chicago, where she is a company member of Halcyon Theatre and an artistic associate of Polarity Ensemble Theatre.

As I chatted with cast members after the show, I marveled at the amazing depth and breadth of Childsplay offerings. It seems only yesterday that I was watching Childsplay associate artists D. Scott Withers and Jon Gentry bounce, run, bark and drive around in circles during a theater-in-the-round performance of “Go, Dog. Go!” You never know where the artistry of Childsplay might take you.

— Lynn

Note: Click here for additonal show and ticket information, and here to learn about other works being presented as part of the CALA Festival.

Coming up: Border tales

Update: Playwright José Cruz Gonzaléz writes about developing “The Sun Serpent” and his experiences with Childsplay in an article titled “Chasing the Sun” published in the January 2012 issue of “American Theatre” magazine. 1/4/12

Circle time

I first encountered “circle time” as a young mother, when I’d volunteer in my children’s preschool classroom and everyone would gather to share music, stories or “show and tell” type offerings.

Today I enjoyed “circle time” of a different sort, as Lizabeth and I headed to the Herberger Theater Center for the final Actors Theatre performance of an Annie Baker play titled “Circle Mirror Transformation.”

It opens with students in a community acting class lying in a circle trying to count from one to ten within certain parameters, for the purpose of developing a certain mindfulness of those around them — with mixed results.

Valley audiences can experience another Baker work, titled “Body Awareness,” during Actors Theatre’s 2011-2012 season. The work of playwright Sarah Ruhl (whose “In the Next Room” was a hit for Actors Theatre earlier this season) also returns as Actors Theatre presents “Dead Man’s Cell Phone.”

Their 2011-2012 season opens with “A Conversation With Edith Head” by Paddy Calistro and Susan Claassen — and also includes “Next Fall” (Geoffrey Nauffts), “Hunter Gatherers” (Peter Sinn Nachtrieb) and “Time Stands Still” (Donald Margulies).

We enjoyed our time with “Circle Mirror Transformation” — more than we might have otherwise were it not for astute acting by Valley veterans of the stage.

Though I’d have been happy to simply sit and linger over the stunning set, designed by Kimb Williamson of Scottsdale Community College.

After the show we chatted and shared hugs with Maren Maclean (one of five actors in the show), who is one of Lizabeth’s most beloved acting teachers. Lizabeth was eager to share her college decision with Maclean in person. Her choice of an NYC school drew a fitting response: Duh!

Soon we were talking all things East Coast. Maclean’s upcoming reunion at “Indian Hills High School” in Oakland, New Jersey. Our attempts to snag “The Book of Mormon” tickets when we’re in NYC for Lizabeth’s college orientation.

I was keen on showing off my Mother’s Day gifts from Lizabeth — a bracelet and sterling silver earrings with a very circle/mirror vibe. I suspect I’ll be wearing them next Mother’s Day too — my first one without all three kids roosting at least part-time in the nest.

When we got home from the show, I made dinner before sitting down to relax with the latest issue of “American Theatre” magazine, a subscription I enjoy as a gift from my husband for another occasion I’ve all but fogotten by now.

There in the “On Stage: May/June 11” section I spotted a picture of Maclean, Staci Robbins and Rusty Ferracane performing in “Circle Mirror Transformation.”

Just more evidence of the “full circle” nature of my day, and of life. The only thing missing is a bit of “circle time” with two and three year olds. Don’t be surprised if you see me sitting cross-legged on the floor somewhere singing along with a bunch of preschoolers this week.

That’s the best “circle time” of all.

— Lynn

Coming up: More new season announcements

It’s only for now

Phoenix Theatre presents Avenue Q, directed by Robert Kolby Harper, through this weekend

As the musical “Avenue Q” draws to a close, the cast comes together for a resounding chorus of a song called “For Now.” In between phrases, they throw in little teasers about current events or other things most of us hope will pass in a hurry.

Lizabeth recalls that when we saw a touring production of “Avenue Q” at ASU Gammage last season, the buzzword was “John McCain.” Other times it’s been “George Bush.”

We’ve seen several shows that use this device and it’s sometimes difficult to recall every political punchline. But Phoenix Theatre jabs in a different direction — taking aim at actor Charlie Sheen.

There are other differences too, including puppets who get a tad more enthusiastic during a sex scene that feels a bit longer than its touring counterpart. This is one puppet show that’s not even close to being appropriate for children. Since when do puppets read the Kama Sutra?

Emily Mulligan-Ferry plays the sweet Kate Monster and the saucy Lucy (pictured here)

Still, the adults in the crowd — mostly my age and above — loved it. It’s a far cry from the more classic, traditional Broadway fare we typically enjoy at Phoenix Theatre. A risky venture on their part, perhaps — but one that appears to be paying off.

I’m plenty entertained by everything I see at Phoenix Theatre — but uproarious laughter of the magnitude that greeted “Avenue Q” can be elusive for any theater company.

I worried, quite frankly, upon learning “Avenue Q” was being mounted by a regional theater company. It’s a show what can go wrong in so many ways if not tackled by a stellar cast and creative team.

But the stars aligned for “Avenue Q” in Phoenix — with each and every element executed masterfully.

In the vocal powerhouse department, three performers stood out during last Saturday’s matinee performance — David Errigio, Jr. (Nicky/Trekkie Monster/Bad Idea Bear), Emily Mulligan-Ferry (Kate Monster/Lucy) and Toby Yatso (Princeton/Rod). They also rocked in acting and puppetry world.

We always feel the love for Yatso, because he’s a longtime talent at Phoenix Theatre, and one of Lizabeth’s many amazing theater teachers at Arizona School for the Arts. But I’m adding Errigo to my list of must-see actors in all future roles. He’s fresh and espressive with impeccable comedic timing.

The “Gary Coleman” moments felt unnecessary and annoying during my first “Avenue Q” encounter — but it’s a brilliant bit when performed by Yolanda London, best known to Valley families for her work with Childsplay in Tempe.

L to R: Emily Mulligan-Ferry (Kate Monster), David Errigo, Jr. (Trekkie Monster) and Toby Yatso (Princeton)

In many ways, I prefer the Phoenix Theatre production — directed by Robert Kolby Harper — over the touring production of “Avenue Q.”

If you’re up for the sexual content, subtle and otherwise — and you’re not afraid of four-letter words beginning with letters other than “Q” — this is a “not to be missed” show. It’s some of the finest work I’ve ever seen at Phoenix Theatre, and I applaud them for bringing it to Valley audiences with such finesse and flair.

— Lynn

Note: “Avenue Q” is based on an original concept by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. It features book by Jeff Whitty and music/lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. Click here to learn about “American Theatre” magazine — which features “20 Questions for Robert Lopez” in its current issue.

Coming up: Art contests and freebies, Puppet shows for children