Tag Archives: Milk Milk Lemonade

Lemonade for grown-ups

Kaleena Newman and Rod Amez in Milk, Milk Lemonade (Photo: John Groseclose)

You might think, after reading brief histories of favorite childhood rhymes taped to brick walls in the courtyard of the original Tempe Performing Arts Center just off Mill Avenue, that you were about to enjoy a charming bit of theater for children. But you’d be wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong.

Look a bit closer and you’ll see that the comics interspersed with these lovely literary snippets feature not only folksy chickens and their farmers, but also choice language not appropriate for the “chicken nuggets” set. That’s half the fun of seeing “Milk, Milk Lemonade,” being presented by Stray Cat Theatre through Sat, Dec. 17.

“Milk, Milk Lemonade” is one of just a few really smart works of gay theater, according to Ron May, artistic director for Stray Cat Theatre in Tempe — who also praises its smart (and rare) treatment of gender issues. “Milk, Milk Lemonade” was written by Joshua Conkel and is directed for Stray Cat Theatre by Louis Farber.

It’s a brilliant piece of theater, full of rich ideas and language, that makes a point without leaving audience members feeling they’re on the wrong end of a lone pointed finger like the one a scolding parent might give an errant child for deeds deemed inappropriate.

“Milk, Milk Lemonade” follows the adventures to two boys publicly at odds but privately involved. One has big and terrifying emotions its hard to control short of setting fires. Another loves to ribbon dance, play with one particular doll and pal around with a chicken who’s growing plumper as processing day approaches. Both sport anatomical props at one point — a bit too racy, perhaps, for your garden variety theater-goer.

As the play opens, we see a big red barn with sliding doors sometimes used by the boys to hide their pubescent playtimes. Also a dozen or so folk art chickens, wooden and brightly painted until transformed by a giant processing machine into something you’ve likely ordered at the local drive-through. It’s an appetizing bit of theater on a Valley menu sometimes lacking real flavor.

L to R: Molly Kurtz, Michael Thompson, Rod Amez, Kaleena Newman and Sam Wilkes in Milk, Milk Lemonade (Photo: John Groseclose)

“Milk, Milk Lemonade” features a cast of five — Rod Amez (Elliot), Molly Kurtz (Linda), Kaleena Newman (Emory), Michael Thompson (Lady in a Leotard) and Sam Wilkes (Nanna). Their collective acting credits include works with Actors Theatre, ASU, Childsplay, Nearly Naked Theatre, Phoenix Theatre, Space 55 and Valley Youth Theatre. All deliver a strong performance, eliciting a bevy of belly laughs from happy theater goers.

After opening the play with a familiar childhood ditty, Lady in a Leotard ponders aloud. Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body? Are we our bodies or merely living inside them? “Don’t think too hard,” she cautions. And we don’t — but we all get the message. Bodies matter, and we never leave home without them.

There’s a nostalgic twist to “Milk, Milk Lemonade” that’s especially endearing. Or frightening, I suppose, depending on which parts of your own childhood it conjures. References to Albertson’s and Mountain Dew are perfectly harmless, as are musical homages to “Annie” and various songs circa the disco era. Statements like “use your words” and various episodes of passive aggressive behavior, maybe less so.

There’s plenty of bullying, with words and fists, in “Milk, Milk Lemonade.” “Real men” do this or that. Boys who don’t conform are “little girls,” “sissies” or something worse. Only the chicken stays above the fray, delivering some of the play’s best dialogue as she considers the relative merits of spontaneity and surprise over manifest destiny and role conformity.

The Stray Cat program for “Milk, Milk Lemonade” includes a dandy yellow insert full of fun chicken facts, and a revelation by Farber that he uncovered more than 84 different chicken songs while searching for pre-show tunes to up the audience fun factor. Life is hard. There’s lots of hurt. “Milk, Milk Lemonade” makes that clear. Sometimes you’ve just gotta get up and dance.

— Lynn

Note: “Milk, Milk Lemonade” is not appropriate for young audiences, but does make for a fun date night or outing with grown-up friends. So does “Hunter Gatherers” by Peter Sinn Nachtreib, which Ron May directs for Actors Theatre of Phoenix Dec. 30-Jan. 15. For more family-friendly offerings, click here.

Coming up: Art that’s out of this world

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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