Tag Archives: Learn to be Latina

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

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Cats v. dogs, theater style

There are cat people, and there are dog people. 

The differences might make for an amusing Broadway show, but for now we have to settle for productions that feature one species or the other (the pets, not their people). 

Scene from "Seussical"-Photo by Sara Krulwich appeared in "The New York Times"

There’s “Cats” from composer Andrew Lloyd Webber—based on poet T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” I never got this one, despite being a cat-lover. 

There’s “Seussical” from Flaherty and Ahrens, a 2000 Broadway musical based on the works of children’s author Dr. Seuss. Who doesn’t love the song “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think?” 

And there’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” a Tennessee Williams play that has nothing to do with cats, but still strikes my fancy. 

For dog lovers, you’ve got “Annie”–featuring the lovable mutt “Sandy”–which will soon enjoy another Broadway revival.

There’s “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” with everyone’s favorite: “Snoopy.” You gotta love a canine who sits atop his doghouse banging away at a Smith Corona

If you’re not old enough to know what that is, you aren’t old enough to see the shows I’ll be previewing after another couple of paragraphs.

I should confess at this point to being more of a cat person, though I try to be open minded. I grew up enjoying the companionship of both.

Scene from the musical "Annie"

My first pet was actually a little chihuahua named “Nikitita” (no relation to ABBA’s “Chiquitita”) who broke my heart by running away one night during a fierce Colorado thunderstorm. 

I was raised by a single mother who always felt safer with dogs in the house (though our Doberman was milder than milk toast). 

Still, I’ve never gotten the hang of enjoying another creature licking my face. Cats lick themselves. That I can live with. 

If there’s a local theater company dedicated to dogs, I have yet to discover it. (Those of you who find your minds racing with tacky humor at this point need a good lick in the face.) 

Scene from the musical "Cats"

But I so love the alternative theater folks whose name seems a bit of an homage to those fabulous felines. 

It’s Stray Cat Theatre in Tempe, performing at the space once occupied by Childsplay, another Tempe titan of irresistible theater. 

While Childsplay delivers mostly “G-rated” fare, Stray Cat has more of an “R-rated” feel. 

You won’t find anything outrageously controversial in Childsplay’s 2010-2011 season, which includes “Go, Dog. Go!” based on the books by P.D. Eastman. 

Scene from "Reasons to be Pretty"-Photo from "The New York Times"

But Stray Cat Theatre, home of artistic director Ron May, is another story… 

Stray Cat’s ninth season opens with Neil Labute’s “Reasons to be Pretty” directed by April Miller. The show (Sept. 24-Oct. 9) is “a love story about the near impossibility of love.” I can’t wait to see Greg and his girlfriend Steph go at it after he casually mentions a few of her physical imperfections. 

Next up is Enrique Urueta’s “Learn to be Latina” directed by Ron May. At this point, I’d settle for merely learning to speak Spanish. The show (Dec. 3-18) is a comedic look at serious issues of cultural identity and making it in the music business. I’m eager to witness pop singer Hanan’s attempt to transform herself from Lebanese to Latina! 

Stray Cat’s first production of 2011 will be Steve Yockey’s “Octopus,” also directed by Ron May. How terribly thoughtful of them to choose something in keeping with my animal theme. Isn’t it just like a cat to do it’s own thing while leading the humans to believe it was all their idea? This baby (March 25-April 9) deals with the fallout of group sex, so leave the kittens at home if you go there. 

"Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party" at SF Playhouse-Photo by Zabrina Tipton

Finally, there’s Aaron Loeb’s “Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party” directed by Ron May—who clearly takes pride in being a provocateur par excellence. This piece (no pun intended) closes out Stray Cat’s 2010-2011 season with a bang (May 20-June 11). It features the “trial of the century” in which Lincoln’s teacher faces charges of asking whether Lincoln might have been gay. I’m not sure how you get from courtroom drama to dance party, but have no doubts that May will pull it off and more. 

For those of you who prefer tamer fare, I’ll offer a future post on the 2010-2011 Childsplay season. I have to wonder, though, whether their choice of “Go, Dog. Go!” reveals a clear canine bias… 

–Lynn