Tag Archives: Heddatron

Once upon a robot

“Heddatron” robots invade Stray Cat Theatre in Tempe through June 9

Walls surrounding the Tempe Performing Arts Center courtyard were plastered with tidbits of robot trivia and images of robots once seen on screens big and small for opening night of Elizabeth Meriwether’s “Hedatron” — which imagines a pregnant housewife’s capture by friendly robots. It’s her “Calgon, take me away” moment and it’s glorious.

As “Heddatron” opens, five robot operators donning black garb and headgear form a tight circle on stage. They’ve got remote controls in hand during what looks like a pre-game huddle complete with “all for one and one for all” hand gesture. Once they’re seated in the front row, various characters begin to fill in different spaces on the stage.

The kitchen and living room of a home shared by two parents and a school-age daughter. Also parts of a home shared by writer Henrik Ibsen, his wife and the resident “kitchen slut.” Think maid in the missionary position. And yes, “Heddatron” is most certainly a mature content play — so leave the little ones home to play with their own dolls and robots.

Mounting a show takes plenty of blood, sweat and tears. But injecting this show with robots also took wiring, wheels and gears. And heart. Every robot has it’s own personality, reflected through design, voicing, sound effects and more. Robot designers, builders and operators all deserve high praise. And a good night’s sleep after working nearly round the clock in some cases.

I sometimes run into folks who lament the Valley arts scene, feeling it lacks originality, imagination or truly inspired artistry. And “Heddatron” makes me wonder. Maybe they’re not spending enough time with stray cats like Ron May, artistic director for Stray Cat Theatre and director for this show.

Johanna Carlisle (L) and Thea Eigo “Heddatron” (Photo: John Groseclose)

May’s imagination must be a marvelous place, because beauty and biting humor are born there — then delivered with real insight and grace. His many strengths include casting just the right person for each part, as evidenced by Thea Eigo’s performance as “Nugget Gordon.” We’ll all be saying “I knew her when” about that one some day. In a good way.

Eigo plays the daughter of Jane Gordon (Johanna Carlisle) and Rick Gordon (Todd Michael Isaac), and spends much of the play sharing snippets of school reports on Ibsen and other writers while sporting Ibsen-esque sideburns and running through visual aids that look like cue cards. She’s a hoot — and incredibly cute.

Eigo is a Childsplay-trained actor whose bio notes that she’s a 5th grader at Villa Montessori School. Seems she “enjoys music, photography, and collecting sock monkeys” and has a wonderful big sister named Willa. Eigo told me that “Heddatron” is about “a housewife who gets kidnapped by robots.” True enough, but she’ll find other themes in the work as she grows.

Opening nights at Stray Cat Theatre include post-show gatherings in the courtyard, complete with nibbles and libations. I lingered after Friday’s performance to chat with folks about “Heddatron” — asking everyone I talked with a single question: “What’s that play about?”

My first observation was this — in groups of men and women, only the women had a reply at the ready. It’s about aliention or boredom, they told me. About longing for something beyond suburbia, marriage and motherhood. Sorry guys, but more than a few of you drew a blank on this one.

Johanna Carlisle as Jane Gordon in “Heddatron” (Photo: John Groseclose)

The most notable exception was Damon Dering, artistic director for Nearly Naked Theatre (yup, they go there). It’s about learning to love the very thing that traps you, he told me — but with a bit more eloquence. “Heddatron” is fun fare for folks steeped in the study of existentialism, or those who wake up living it each day. Think art meets angst.

A fellow former stage mom told me it was about Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler,” the play mama Gordon is forced by robots to read in the rain forest after her abduction. True enough, but you needn’t read it to enjoy the show. Trying too hard to understand “Heddatron” won’t up the fun factor, so it’s perfectly fine to just show up and be entertained.

Still, those with an artistic bent will appreciate the play’s ponderings about the nature of art and artist. Where you live will likely influence your view of the “Heddatron” landscape. Some will see the struggle for women’s liberation. Others the clash of society with self. Some the tyranny of technology or commercialism. And some their own lives.

A local actor turned entrepreneur honed in on the scientist whose musings about “synchronicity” are projected onto a screen hanging over the back of the stage. That, and the snappy bow tie, earn him big points for originality. Seems folks once feared dark consequences if robots grew self-aware, unmindful of the perils facing humans grappling with their own automatization.

Stray Cat Theatre performs “Heddatron” through June 9, and they’re already looking ahead to season #11 featuring “punkplay” by Gregory S. Moss, “Wolves” by Steve Yockey, “Sons of the Prophet” by Stephen Karam and a Trista Baldwin play with a rhyming title best not mentioned in a parenting publication. (Snaps to literary manager Emily Rubin, who helped snag rights to perform the Karam piece.)

Theater works come and go, but on-stage robots are rare and worth the journey into alternative theater Stray Cat style even for folks who’ve yet to develop a taste for such things. Leave your prim and proper behind, and head to Tempe for a performance that’ll reduce your own roboticism. Great theater makes us more human. Thank Meriwether and May for that.

— Lynn

Note: “Heddatron” includes scenes depicting sex, suicide and other mature themes. Click here for information on local and national suicide prevention resources. Click here to explore The Ibsen Museum in Oslo.

Coming up: The press tribe gathers to honor its own

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Storytelling takes flight

Alyson Marie Maloney soars as Emily Book in Stray Cat Theatre's production of The Sparrow (Photo: John Groseclose)

Storytelling took flight Friday night as Stray Cat Theatre in Tempe opened its 10th season with “The Sparrow,” a work conceived by Nathan Allen and co-written with Chris Mathews and Jake Minton.

It’s directed by Stray Cat Theatre’s founding artistic director Ron May, recently honored with an Arizoni Award for directing last season’s “Learn to be Latina.” He opened the evening by previewing the rest of this season’s shows — “Milk, Milk Lemonade” by Joshua Conkel, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” by Stephen Adly Guirgis and “Heddatron” by Elizabeth Meriwether.

That last one promises a mix of housewife, playwright and robots. May has perfected the fine art of selecting a season — and casting the right people for each role. “The Sparrow” features Alyson Marie Mahoney as Emily Book, the sole survivor of a school bus that somehow collides with a train.

In a day and age of lavish, big budget productions that expect little of their viewers, Stray Cat Theatre knows that less can be more. Robert Kolby Harper, associate artistic director with Phoenix Theatre, praises May’s “minimalist” approach to “The Sparrow” — noting its elegance as an homage to imagination.

Rather than elaborate sets with frequent changes that can distract audience members from the heart of a story, May pumps life into “The Sparrow” with a simple dollhouse, tall red rectangles signifying student lockers and a bevy of chairs — plus a little something we all remember from high school biology but never expected to see doing the disco.

Damon Dering, artistic director for Nearly Naked Theatre in Phoenix, notes that May’s production has a “real Chicago feel.” The play originated at The House Theatre in Chicago, and May’s own Chicago roots have clearly taken flight at the little Tempe theater where he’s feathering the nest with a “$10 for 10th” campaign that’ll help future seasons soar.

This production’s Chicago connections include Andréa Morales, who portrays high school uberachiever Jenny. Morales performed for several years with Childsplay in Tempe before heading to the Windy City, where she’s a company member with Halcyon Theatre and artistic associate with Polarity Ensemble Theatre.

The cast of Stray Cat Theatre's The Sparrow gives a stirring ensemble performance (Photo: John Groseclose)

I hit opening night for “The Sparrow” with my daughter Jennifer, an ASU student who usually ranks attending live theater productions right up there with cleaning out the litter box. But she was eager to see “The Sparrow” after learning that the cast includes a couple of actors she knows from ASU and Arizona School for the Arts.

I spoke with one of them, Joshua Sherrill, after the show. He practically waxed poetic about the show’s deeper meaning. We all experience pain, he told me, but it’s how we come through it that defines who we are. In “The Sparrow,” it’s parents who are grieving.

The parents’ pain, and the grief of a community losing its innocence, are signaled by actors carrying framed photos of children and pastoral rural scenes. No need to wheel trees and plains in and out of view. We get it from the moment the show first spreads its wings — thanks in part to simple but dramatic lighting and music, mostly strings, that mix sweet melodies with sad, somber sounds.

Much of “The Sparrow” centers around small town high school life. Think cheerleaders and football fervor. Wrist corsages and awkward prom moments. Teacher crushes and overhead projectors. The latter makes for nifty shadow effects on a screen also used to show footage of the school bus crash at the heart of the play. The film clips are especially compelling when mixed with sound effects signaling trains careening down the tracks.

You'll have to decide whether Emily Book's strange powers are really beyond her control (Pictured: Alyson Marie Maloney, Photo: John Groseclose)

“The Sparrow” is perfectly enjoyable as a story free from existential elaboration. Theater goers who prefer to let trains be trains will be satiated by this show. But those seeking deeper symbolism can find it in a speeding train that could be the powerful imaginings of a young child or the repressed feelings of a teacher at once tender and treacherous.

It’s the collision of love and loss that gives “The Sparrow” its poignancy and power. The naysayers of a decade ago who told Ron May that starting Stray Cat Theatre could lead to a train wreck were right. But little did they know just how high it would soar.

— Lynn

Note: “The Sparrow” is best for mature teen and adult audiences. To learn more about the show, which runs through Oct 8, visit www.straycattheatre.org. I’m told the fabulous cookies enjoyed by folks who lingered after the show for a 10th season celebration came from Angelica Howland, proprietor of Scrumptious Angel cookies. I’ll update this post with her website once it’s up and running. Baking first, technology second. I like her style. Hooray! You can now click here to find the cookie website!

Coming up: Show me your Sondheim!, Mystery takes center stage