Tag Archives: Johanna Carlisle

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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Focus on forgiveness

I’m not Jewish, or much of anything else for that matter. Most days I’m satisfied with simply doing my best to be a good person. There’s plenty that needs doing in the here and now, so musings on an afterlife feel a luxury at best.

Still, I pause each year to really reflect on the meaning of a Jewish holiday called Yom Kippur, also known as the “Day of Atonement.” It’s right up there with Thanksgiving for me because forgiveness and gratitude are so essential to everyday life.

I hadn’t realized, when making plans to see Phoenix Theatre’s opening night performance of a lesser-known musical called “The Spitfire Grill,” that the themes of gratitude and forgiveness were so prevalent in the work.

“The Spitfire Grill” is peppered with characters who have imposing pasts but retreating futures. It’s set in a small, rural town that speaks authentically to the experiences of anyone who has ever lived in one. 

L to R: Jeannie Shubitz (Shelby), Trisha Hart Ditsworth (Percy), Toby Yatso (Joe) and Barbara McBain as Hannah in the Phoenix Theatre production of The Spitfire Grill

“The Spitfire Grill” has just a handful of characters — a widow who owns the grill, an ex-con who takes a job there and the law enforcement type who makes it possible. Also a town gossip and a couple whose relationship changes as the man feels his masculinity challenged by his wife’s discovery of life outside the laundry room. And a final character central to the musical’s themes of shame and loss.

The cast is a delightul mix of actors who’ve often graced the Phoenix Theatre stage (Johanna Carlisle as Effy, Rusty Ferracane as Caleb and Toby Yatso as Joe) and those making a Phoenix Theatre debut (Jason Barth as Eli and Trisha Hart Ditsworth as Percy). Barbara McBain returns to Phoenix Theatre as Hannah and Jeannie Shubitz returns as Shelby.

If you like spunky or feisty women, you’ll find them at “The Spitfire Grill.” As events unfold, one woman is forced to confront her goodness as another learns to embrace her power. Two face the loss of a child, and learn to let go of the shame they need never have carried. The men feel less transformed somehow, but that could be my chromosomes talking.

L to R: Trisha Hart Ditsworth (Percy), Barbara McBain (Hannah) and Jeannie Shubitz (Shelby) undergo profound transformation in The Spitfire Grill at Phoenix Theatre

There’s much to love about “The Spitfire Grill.” Dialogue like Percy’s “If a wound goes real deep, can the healin’ feel just as bad as what caused it?” Music, rich in strings, that leaves you just a little bit tempted to get up and square dance, two-step or do a jig. And storytelling praised by many who attended opening night as “simple” and “straightforward.”

Several of the songs, slower ballads that soar like the birds they sometimes reference, are among the most beautiful pieces I’ve heard in the world of musical theater — reminding me of other favorites like “Maybe” from “Next to Normal.” Ordering the cast album from the folks who created “The Spitfire Grill” is high on my “to do” list.

The Spitfire Grill,” directed for Phoenix Theatre by Brad Carroll, is based on the film by Lee David Zlotoff (though the film and the musical have entirely different endings). It features music by James Valcq, lyrics by Fred Alley, and book by both Valcq and Alley.

Alan Ruchs serves as musical director for this production (he’s the resident musical director at Phoenix Theatre). Mike Eddy serves as director of production and lighting designer. Robert Andrew Kovach serves as scenic designer. All perform brilliantly in making “The Spitfire Grill” at Phoenix Theatre a moving experience for theater-goers.

While “The Spitfire Grill” has been dubbed “a musical about second chances,” I’m not convinced that tagline does it justice. Plenty of people get the gift of a second chance nowadays without undergoing any real change.

“The Spitfire Grill” is more of a transformation tale — a story of family and forgiveness rooted in very real evolutions of self. A world without forgiveness for self, others and sometimes even the universe, is a miserable one indeed.

“The Spitfire Grill” is a lovely gem of a musical reminding us all to let go and let live.

— Lynn

Note: Phoenix Theatre is undergoing its own transformation, which you can learn more about or get more involved with by clicking here.

Coming up: Who’s munching who?, Before there was Zuccotti Park…

Review: “Oedipus for Kids!”

“Oedipus for Kids!” is one of 30 musicals in this year’s New York Musical Theatre Festival, but you don’t have to fly across the country to enjoy it. The Valley’s own Nearly Naked Theatre is presenting the work through Sept 10 at  The Little Theatre at Phoenix Theatre.

Before you go, a few things you should know. It’s adult material not suitable for children. And it’s full of all the things you’d expect in a tale of Oedipus Rex — except the gore. There’s no blood during the eye scene — just curious squirts from a pair of cleverly concealed creamer containers — although a final scene does get messy when a character takes a baklava knife in the back.

I attended the Aug 21 performance with my daughter Lizabeth, part of her informal “farewell tour” before leaving for college theater studies in NYC.  I felt torn, knowing I’d have to miss the National Youth Theatre Awards at the Herberger Theater Center that night.

“Oedipus for Kids!” is directed by Toby Yatso, one of Lizabeth’s teachers for many years at Arizona School for the Arts, and Sunday was her only real opportunity to say “thanks” and share a bit of goodbye banter. It just didn’t feel right to miss this bit of his work after all he’s meant to my daughter.

Sunday’s audience included several older teens, including ASA theater major Nicole Speth, who seemed disappointed that others weren’t catching the show’s many references to Greek mythology. Speth was delighted about putting all those studies of Greek mythology during sophomore year to good use.

Don’t send your teens if you’re convinced they’ve never experienced foul language akin to the title of a Broadway show starring Chris Rock that closed just last month. “Oedipus for Kids!” is anything but politically correct when it comes to topics like suicide and disabilities. It’s the spoofs of political correctness, Greek weddings, children’s entertainment and actors who take themselves too seriously that make this show such a killer comedy.

Still, “Oedipus for Kids!” is tame by some Nearly Naked standards. Yatso describes it as pretty typical fare in terms of content, but notes that unlike other works from this theater company, there’s no nudity. Only underwear. And simulated sex behind a rack of costumes. That’s a relief.

I’m a big admirer of Nearly Naked’s work (and that of founding artistic director Damon Dering), though I don’t really have what it takes to hit every show. In quaint parlance, I suppose I’m a bit of a prude when it comes to artistry meeting anatomy. “Oedipus for Kids!” is perfect for those of us ready to dip only our big toe into the water.

Folks who relish the risque know that this is where to find it. Still, I expect to see more Nearly Naked shows than usual this season because their five-show line-up includes a tantalizing take on “Romeo and Juliet” and the local premiere of “Spring Awakening” (a joint venture with Phoenix Theatre featuring direction by Damon and Phoenix Theatre’s Robert Kolby Harper).

“Oedipus for Kids!” features book by Gil Varod and Kimberly Patterson, lyrics by Gil Varod and music by Robert J. Saferstein (who also provides additional material). It’s published by Samuel French, which offers a summary of the work — a play within a play — on its website.

Charles Isherwood of The New York Times describes “Oedipus for Kids!” as “a spoof of children’s theater, with some truly funny songs and endearlingly loopy performances from a cast of just three.” The three are members of a fictional theater troupe specializing in performing the classics for children.

After success with the likes of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Fuzzy Duck Theatre Company decides to tackle “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles. Seems two troupe members are in the middle of a nasty divorce, and the third is an actor with “questionable methods.”

Samuel French notes that “off-stage disagreements between the cast members spill onstage.” Think “Noises Off!” with less booze and more blood. Their description also mentions “flesh wounds” and “fornication” — making it clear that this is an adults-only piece.

I’m told that the show’s two writers contacted Nearly Naked after learning they’d be mounting “Oedipus for Kids!” — offering to share updates to the work. Apparently this is the first full-scale production to feature those updates, and Varod and Patterson will attend the final Friday performance to see the result (and stay for a talkback with audience members).

The cast of Nearly Naked’s “Oedipus for Kids!” includes Johanna Carlisle (Catalina/Mommy/Jocasta/Oracle), Doug Loynd (Allistair/Lauis/Tedipus/Sphinxy) and Chad McCluskey (Evan/Oedipus). Aya Nameth, set to graduate next fall with a B.A. in theatre performance from ASU, is the Catalina understudy.

Carlisle is a veteran Valley actress whose program bio notes that her favorite role is that of mom to her son Maxx. Maxx Carlisle-King is a gifted teen actor currently appearing as “Sketch” in the Valley Youth Theatre production of “Hairspray” at the Herberger Theater Center.

Loynd’s bio recalls boyhood days in California spent acting, singing and dancing, Also sewing — which explains his skill as costume designer for Nearly Naked’s “Oedipus for Kids!” It also offers an homage of sorts to the cats he credits with “urging him to continue his passion.” More proof that the best artists owe it all to their cats.

Chad McCluskey “hails from foggy Newfoundland” and studies “Secondary Education: Chemistry” at ASU. Let’s hope some well-meaning parents won’t use McCluskey’s bio to lecture their own child with acting plans about the practicality of things like teaching degrees and “real jobs.”

McCluskey’s comedic performance in “Oedipus for Kids!” is the one to beat this season. “Oedipus for Kids!” is a gem of a show. Yatso’s directing sensibilities are perfectly matched to this work, which also features his choreography.

Musical direction by Mark 4man kicks the energy of “Oedipus for Kids!” into high gear. It helps to have songs like “A Little Complex” and “Be Kind to the Blind” to start with. And volunteers willing to join cast members on stage for a song about the plague.

But 4man’s music tracks, created at home with his keyboard according to Yatso, give the feel of a live band. Songs played before each act opens make for fantastic foreplay. As it should be for the opening of Nearly Naked’s 13th season.

— Lynn

Note: Those of you seeking Oedipus tales for younger audiences can click here.

Coming up: “Titus Andronicus” opens the Southwest Shakespeare Company season