Tag Archives: Southwest Shakespeare Company

“Much Ado” in Argentina

“It takes two to tango,” muses David Vining in his director’s notes for Southwest Shakespeare Company’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Vining seized on the tango vibe for “Much Ado” after realizing how well it matched the Beatrice/Benedick sparring at the heart of the play — which centers on folks who spend entirely too much time trying to trick others, for reasons sometimes malevolent but mostly benign.

Like all of Shakespeare’s works, “Much Ado About Nothing” reveals much about human nature. In this case, it’s the giddiness of man — described by Vining as the tendency “to get our knickers in a twist over the least little thing.” Think Shakespeare meets Sarah Bernhardt. Then thank goodness for Maren Maclean, whose Beatrice rocks the farce with true force and finesse. Her performance elevates this “Much Ado” to one of the finest feasts of Shakespeare I’ve ever tasted.

Maren Maclean (Beatrice) and Jesse James Kamps (Benedick) from "Much Ado About Nothing" at Southwest Shakespeare Company

Vining sets this “Much Ado About Nothing” in 1930s Argentina, noting its many “serendipitous parallels” with Shakespeare’s Messina along the Sicilian coast — the original setting for the play. First, “the passion and sexiness of the tango.” Then similar periods of “political and military unrest.” Both had “a powerful military, an established aristocracy and a clearly defined class system” — plus “the strong presence of Catholicism.”

The flag of Argentina hangs over a balcony at the center of the set, with ivy-laden walls washed in yellow tones. A single bench sits on either side of the stage. The set changes very little over the course of the play, but no matter. It’s lovely, and enhanced every now and then by elements like hanging strings of small white lights. Scenic artist Laura Johnson’s experience with murals shines through. Costume design by Masi Hosler and lighting design by J. Alan Davis is beautiful as well.

There’s a serious sexiness to this production, filled with handsome men in crisp uniforms and gorgeous women in elegant gowns. Still, the tango falls a bit flat — lacking the flair of true tango, and feeling a bit like an afterthought rather than a passionate piece of storytelling. Better to focus on the cast’s command of Shakepearean dialogue, which is delightful. It’s all in the diction — that’s the word shared by “Much Ado” cast members during their opening night talk back after the show.

Several students attended the opening night performance. The house wasn’t quite full but it was full of laughter. Take your teens to see the show. Then ask them to imagine how things might have evolved differently were Beatrice and Benedick, or Hero and Claudio, armed not only with works — but also with Wi-Fi. “Much Ado About Nothing” happens everyday in our offices and schools, via telephone and text message. Time spent watching others get giddy is a fun reminder that reining it in often trumps letting it roll.

— Lynn

Note: Southwest Shakespare Company performs “Much Ado About Nothing” though May 5. Click here for details and ticket information.

Coming up: “American Idiot” opens at ASU Gammage

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Going rogue?

I've always got my eye out for art -- like this "Right Eye from an Arthropoid Coffin" (1539-30 B.C., Egypt) recently spotted at the Brooklyn Museum in NYC

I feel a bit rogue sometimes — writing for an Arizona magazine, but finding such delight in covering NYC arts and culture. So I decided maybe it was time to share with readers in both states, plus others, my rationale for marrying the two. The initial lure, of course, was our youngest daughter Lizabeth. Like many born and raised in Arizona, she’s chosen to further her arts education in NYC — so I visit several times a year in “mom mode.”

But the bridge between Arizona and NYC (plus Chicago and other communities with a heavy arts footprint) is a two-way street. Many who teach and create art in Arizona communities hail from NYC or other parts of the country, and I enjoy giving voice to the places and spaces that’ve nurtured the gifts enjoyed by Arizona art lovers.

Art is all around and deep within us. Traveling without covering regional arts and culture would be like refusing to breath another city’s air. Suffocating. Rather than distracting Arizona readers from the beauty of our own arts bounty, I hope my writing “on the road” inspires a greater appreciation for the multitude of marvels here at home. Photos from a children’s museum in Manhattan or Las Vegas might inspire a family to visit the Children’s Museum of Phoenix or the Tucson Children’s Museum. So it’s all good.

Sometimes it feels like the art is keeping an eye on you -- like "Curious and Curiouser" by Mary Lucking and David Tinapple in the Arizona Science Center lobby

I’m fortunate to have lots of “Stage Mom” readers in NYC, and hope my blogging on both states’ offerings inspires them to consider the depth and breadth of Arizona arts and culture. We get plenty of bad press, and I’m privileged to cover what’s best about our state. Young poets, skilled playwrights, talented musicians, inspiring dancers, gifted actors. Also arts educators in our schools, museums and various community venues. Tourism takes place in both directions — and I’m an unapologetic missionary for the Arizona arts scene.

I suppose some of my kinship with NYC was born of years attending touring Broadway productions at ASU Gammage. I take special delight on reporting from NYC about shows I’ve seen on Valley stages — plus shows that’ll likely head our way during future tours. Only seeing “War Horse” performed at Lincoln Center in NYC enabled me to appreciate how fortunate we are that it’ll gallop into ASU Gammage during their 2012-13 season.

Some people seem to spy art wherever they go -- like this "Untitled" (1961) by Lee Bontecou that's exhibited at the Phoenix Art Museum

Some assume that Arizonans are settling for mediocre on-stage and museum fare, but trips to NYC have heightened my appreciation for local offerings. Sometimes I find things that Arizona could use a lot more of — like arts and culture originating in Africa. Other times, I find modest NYC exhibits of Native American or Latino artworks that make clear the excellence of Arizona collections.

Stumbling on the Brooklyn Children’s Museum’s “Pattern Wizardry” in NYC years after I’d taken my children to enjoy the traveling exhibit at Mesa’s Arizona Museum for Youth reminded me, like Dorothy in her ruby red slippers, that you needn’t head over the rainbow to find what’s good and right in the world.

Still, we know that plenty of Arizona families travel — making choices when they do about where to invest precious resources like time and money. In an amusement park world, I’m keen on reminding parents to consider arts and cultural destinations too. Youth theater in San Diego. Orchestral concerts in Los Angeles. Public art in Las Vegas. Dance performance in Orlando. It’s all part of upping their appreciation for aesthetics, and the arts and culture industry so critical to a healthy American economy.

Teach your kids to look for art wherever they go -- like this eye detail on the glass house by Therman Statom located just outside the SMoCA young@art gallery in Scottsdale

It’s easy to take Arizona arts and culture for granted, forgetting just how exceptional our own theater companies from Childsplay to Valley Youth Theatre can be. Seeing touring productions from other parts of the country often reminds me that some of the country’s best artists live right here among us. Wowed as I was by a touring Kennedy Center production of “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical” performed a while back at Higley Center for the Performing Arts, it confirmed my suspicion that Childsplay in Tempe routinely achieves the same high quality of theater performance for students and families.

Seeing works performed during the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City each summer always makes me more committed to attending Southwest Shakespeare Company productions here at home. Admiring works of glass art at the Brooklyn Museum last week left me eager to explore more glass art here at home. Similarly, performances enjoyed here in the Valley up my appreciation for works by artists in other places. During my last trip to NYC, I spent an evening watching local arts programming from Thirteen WNET New York Public Media — eager to watch a show about young poets after covering state Poetry Out Loud finals here in the Valley.

Comparing and contrasting are essential to the craft of theater criticism and other elements of arts reporting, so I’d be foolish to check my memories of places like the Louvre, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the door when entering “Stage Mom” mode. The more I experience, the more I have to share with Arizona readers. “Going rogue” has a lovely ring to it, but there’s a circle to what I do — and Arizona will always be my center.

— Lynn

Coming up: Let’s talk “Bully”

The circle of theater

Kylie Cochrane (Laura), Rebecca Steiner (Beatrice) and Scotlyn Mascarelli (Sara) backstage after Saturday's matinee performance of William Gibson's "The Miracle Worker" at Scottsdale Community College

Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation.” Elton John’s “The Circle of Life.” Even Shakespeare-in-the-round and the Roundabout Theatre Company. Theater is full of circles — some dizzying, some delightful. But I had another sort of circle in mind when heading out for a performance of William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker.”

The circle from child to adult, from teacher to mentor, from one mother to another. When high school felt torturous, theater was our daughter Lizabeth’s salvation. And Valley actress Maren Maclean, then teaching at Arizona School for the Arts, was there for her. To teach, to coach, to listen, to uplift and to embrace. I’ll never forget it.

Today I headed up to Scottsdale Community College for the matinee performance of “The Miracle Worker” so I could see Maclean’s daughter Scotlyn perform, knowing Liz would be right there with me if she could beam herself back from college acting studies in NYC. Our girls first met many years ago, and my how they’ve grown since.

Victoria Grace (L, Helen Keller) poses after the show with Sierra -- who brought lovely flowers to congratulate Grace on her performance

SCC  is another one of our circles. Our son Christopher earned his degree there and continues to take classes in career-related offerings, also working and volunteering with the school’s Center for Native and Urban Wildlife. It was actually Christopher who reminded me to hit “The Miracle Worker” — I kept feeling like late March was worlds away. The world spins quickly when we’re not watching.

Lizabeth also trained for two summers with Maclean — plus SCC theatre arts chair Randy Messersmith and other theater professionals — in the Scottsdale Conservatory Theatre, which celebrates its 25th season this summer. Auditions for the five-week program are open to folks ages 16 + and this year’s auditions take place Sat, April 21.

SCT “provides students with an opportunity to earn up to 10 semester hours of college credit while studying with professional actors who are currently working in their field.” This year’s program runs from May 29-July 3. The twenty students selected to participate will enjoy classes in stage movement, mask, voice and diction, and text analysis.

Carrie Rockwell (L, Aunt Ev) and John Viliott (Captain Keller) pose after Saturday's matinee of SCC's "The Miracle Worker"

The program’s founder and former director, Pamela Fields, will be teaching a master class in Anton Chekhov acting technique, and the college will be producing “The Good Doctor” by Neil Simon. I first met Fields while we were fellow ASU Gammage Goers, and recall being wowed by her theater expertise, insightful sense of humor and warm spirit. (I wasn’t yet in RAK “Stage Mom” mode.)

I suppose the circle is growing into something of a line at this point. Actually several of them. I’ll be following one to Mesa Arts Center for the April 19-May 5 run of Southwest Shakespeare Company’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” which features Jesse James Kamps and Maren Maclean as Benedick & Beatrice. I last encountered these characters during a Childsplay summer camp performance, which made me adore “Ado” even more.

The circle started long ago at Desert View Learning Center in Paradise Valley, where Lizabeth and fellow students enjoyed rich experiences in arts and academics. Lizabeth first took to the stage in Greasepaint Youththeatre productions of “Tom Sawyer” and “The King and I” (turns out a fellow actor from the latter is now a swing in “Jesus Christ Superstar” on Broadway).

I remember her absolute delight — and that of her sister Jennifer (who performed with great aplomb in “Pinocchio” and “Hansel and Gretel” at Greasepaint) — when teachers came to see her perform, and made time after to chat about the experience and ask for autographs. Today it was my turn to make a little girl’s day, though Scotlyn hardly needed the encouragement. No time for autographs when you’ve got another show to prepare for. Your last chance to see SCC’s production of “The Miracle Worker” is tonight at 7:3opm.

Grace (L) posing with Bonanni after Saturday's matinee

It’s a lovely, charming piece directed with finesse by Ron Bonanni. The script is absolutely beautiful — and a real delight for those of us whose passion for words mirrors that of teacher Annie Sullivan. You’ll know both Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan better for seeing it, and you’ll be impressed with the professionalism of this production — which features scenic design by Alex Keen and costume design by Elizabeth Peterson. It’s produced by Randy Messersmith.

Kirsten Zollars (Anne Sullivan), Victoria Grace (Helen Keller) and Christopher Masucci (James Keller) gave especially strong performances — and each excels at showing their character’s smart and saucy side. I especially enjoyed songs and spirituals sung throughout the play, and the playwright’s subtle digs at the politics and gender stereotypes of the time. That’s a whole other circle that just keeps turning.

— Lynn

Note: Click here for details about the application/audition process for this year’s Summer Conservatory Theatre at SCC. You can buy tickets for tonight’s performance of “The Miracle Worker” at the SCC Performing Arts Center at the door (SCC is located at 9000 E. Chaparral Rd.).

Coming up: A city inside a museum

Theater meets Christmas

Irving Berlin's White Christmas comes to ASU Gammage in Tempe Dec. 6-11

More than a dozen Valley venues are presenting family-friendly theater fare with a Christmas theme. Here’s an early round-up, listed by city, to help families who celebrate Christmas with holiday planning…

Anthem

Musical Theatre of Anthem presents a “Holiday Show” Dec. 16. www.musicaltheatreofanthem.org.

Fountain Hills

Fountain Hills Theater presents “Christmas Jukebox” Nov. 25-Dec. 18. www.fhtaz.org.

Gilbert

Hale Theatre Arizona presents “It’s a Wonderful Life” through Nov. 26 and  “A Christmas Carol” Dec. 1-23. www.haletheatrearizona.com.

Glendale

Spotlight Youth Theatre presents “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” Dec. 2-18. www.spotlightyouththeatre.org.

Mesa

Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre presents “A Christmas Carol” Nov. 17-Dec. 25. www.broadwaypalmwest.com.

East Valley Children’s Theatre presents “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” Dec. 1-11. www.evct.org.

Southwest Shakespeare Company presents “A Christmas Carol” Nov. 26-Dec. 17. www.swshakespeare.org.

Southwest Shakespeare Company performs A Christmas Carol Nov. 26-Dec. 17 in Mesa

Peoria

Arizona Broadway Theatre presents “Miracle on 34th St.” Nov. 25-Dec. 29 and “A Broadway Christmas Carol” Dec. 9-17. www.arizonabroadwaytheatre.com.

The Homestead Playhouse presents “A Christmas Carol” Dec. 1-4. www.dcranchnet.com.

Theater Works presents “A Christmas Carol” Dec. 2-18. Theater Works/Youth Works Puppet Works presents “Saving Santa” Dec. 3-24 (Sat only). www.theaterworks.com.

Phoenix

Grand Canyon University presents “Amahl and the Night Visitors” Dec. 2-11. www.gcu.edu.

New Carpa Theater Co. presents “American Pastorela” Dec. 9-18 at the Third Street Theater (Phoenix Center for the Arts). www.newcarpa.org. (Mature content)

Phoenix Theatre presents “A Christmas Story” Nov. 23-Dec. 18. www.phoenixtheatre.com.

Space 55 presents “A Bloody Mary Christmas II” Dec. 1-17 and “7 Minutes Under the Mistletoe” Dec. 17. www.space55.org. (Mature content)

The Black Theatre Troupe presents “Black Nativity” Dec. 2-11. www.blacktheatretroupe.org.

Valley Youth Theatre presents “A Winnie-the-Pooh Christmas Tail” Dec 2-23. www.vyt.com.

Scottsdale

Theatre Artists Studio presents “Holiday Music & Musings: From the Page to the Stage” Dec. 2. www.thestudiophx.org.

Sun City

Sun City Grand Drama and Comedy Club presents “Over the River and Through the Woods” Dec. 1-4. www.granddrama.com.

East Valley Children's Theatre presents The Best Christmas Pageant Ever Dec. 1-11

Tempe

ASU Gammage presents “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” (touring production) Dec. 6-11. www.asugammage.com.

If your Valley organization is presenting a theater production with a Christmas, or other winter holiday, theme — please comment below to let readers know.

— Lynn

Note: A calendar of family-friendly events is always available online at www.raisingarizonakids.com. This post will be updated as I learn of additional theater offerings with a Christmas theme. Although most of the events noted above are designed for family audiences, please note that some are “mature audience” only productions.

Coming up: Christmas concerts, A cup of cheer

Update: Some of these shows are extending their runs, so check theater company websites for the latest and greatest information. 11/26/11

Shakespeare essay contest

The movie "Anonymous" can inspire students to critical thinking and writing

Students in Los Angeles recently made the news by protesting the movie “Anonymous” and its premise that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by another man.

Students from every state, and country, are invited to participate in a Shakespeare authorship essay contest being presented by the Shakespeare Fellowship and the Shakespeare Oxford Society. Arizona students, take note.

Presenters say the contest, held annually since 2002, is designed to “involve students in the creative and analytical synthesis of knowledge about Shakespeare, the Shakespeare Canon, and the Shakespeare Authorship Question.” 

Contest organizers hope that “teachers the world over will find that this essay contest is a useful resource for stimulating thinking, discussion and the development of analytic and critical thinking skills.”

Essays for the 2012 contest must be submitted electronically by Dec. 17, 2012. Contestants must be between the ages of 14 – 19 and/or enrolled in high school grades 9 – 12, in public or private schools in the year 2012. Homeschoolers are welcome. College freshmen may enter if they were graduating seniors in the spring of 2012.

Students must write about one of four topics noted by contest presenters. Two address authorship-related issues. One considers the role of women in Shakespearean literature. And another deals specifically with the movie “Anonymous.”

All essays must be typed, double-spaced in written in English. Expository essays should conform to the APA or MLA style sheets specified by contest presenters. Essays must run between 750 and 3000 words, and each contestant can enter only one piece. Sponsors expect to award a total of $3,000 in prize money.

Essays will be judged on originality of thought, insight into Shakespearean interpretation (most especially as it relates to the authorship question), effective and logical development of thesis, consideration of contrary evidence, effective use of resources and elegance of style. All essays must be the original work of the entrant.

Interested teachers, students and parents can click here to learn more about the contest, and to find related resources such as recommended readings and websites. Although the deadline is more than a year away, presenters note that submissions are welcome before the deadline. I suspect that reading submissions over time is a great deal more enjoyable than facing a huge pile of last-minute entries.

I was surprised when I won an essay contest early in my college career, but glad I had followed my mother’s advice by submitting an entry. So few people ever enter such things, she told me, and your chances of winning are much greater than you might imagine.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to learn about education programs offered by Arizona’s own Southwest Shakespeare Company in Mesa.

Coming up: What’s your border?

Fresh take on “Midsummer”

SCC presents A Midsummer Night's Dream Oct 20-22 and Oct 28-29

Most productions of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” open with a lush forest scene, but Randy Messersmith has something very different in mind for the “Midsummer” he’s directing this season for Scottsdale Community College, where he heads the theatre arts program.

Messersmith was inspired to mount the work after seeing television footage of the devastating earthquakes that struck Japan earlier this year. For Messersmith, “Midsummer” is a tale of human nature gone awry — and its devastating consequences for nature.

Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” weaves together events in the fairy world and events in the mortal world. Titania and Oberon, queen and king of the fairies, bicker over the fate of a young “changeling” boy.

Early in the play, Titania (queen of the fairies) gives what Messersmith calls “the weather report” — describing the fog, famine and other disasters that have befallen mere mortals because of their dissention. “The world is all out of whack,” says Messersmith. “It’s life out of balance.”

“I looked at the tales of the Arabian Nights,” recalls Messersmith, “and found this a compelling way to tell the Midsummer story.” These tales, explains Messersmith, are set in Baghdad, Syria and China — the Persian area. He decided to present “Midsummer” through that lens.

Oberon sends the playful Puck to work all sorts of mischief in others’ love lives. In Shakespeare’s play, Puck uses a flower to work his magic. But in Messersmith’s production, Puck’s tool is a jewel. It’s all part of the “Arabian Nights” vibe for Messersmith’s vision.

Messersmith shares that his production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” opens with a young boy dressed in contemporary garb. A light shines down on a book the boy is reading — a collection of “Arabian Nights” tales. Soon “he steps inside the Midsummer story” — which is “told through the boy’s lens.”

The pastoral scene that typically opens this, one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, is gone. In its place, Messersmith presents a “burned out desert.” Until, that is, Oberon and Titania reconcile later in the play. It’s a work, says Messersmith, that still has relevance today.

But never fear that this production of “Midsummer” may be too dark. “It’s still a comedy,” says Messersmith. “It’s still got lots of romance.” Messersmith notes that the costumes and sets are “very romantic” but that the show has a real “edge to it.”

Messersmith is a man who knows his way around Shakespeare, having co-founded the Valley’s own Southwest Shakespeare Company, which opened it’s 18th season this month with a production of “Titus Andronicus” directed by David Barker. Messersmith played the title role.

I noticed during “Titus Andronicus” that Messersmith — who lives in Gilbert with wife Denise, daughter Alex and twin cats Daisy and Violet — has a small tattoo just below the back of his neck. He shared when I asked that it had nothing to do with the show, but told me he’d gotten it to mark earning his black belt in karate in 2003.

Having seen Messersmith’s gift for acting, teaching and directing, I’m inclined to think there’s more of a tattoo/talent connection than Messersmith himself might realize. The tattoo, he told me, is Kanji for “trust yourself.”

— Lynn

Note: Click here to read more about “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Scottsdale Community College.

Coming up: Valley playwright tackles Munchausen syndrome, Shakespeare meets Sondheim

Recipe for revenge

 

Actors in the dark play Titus Andronicus enjoy lighter moments while rehearsing at the Southwest Shakespeare Company studio in Mesa

Start with one melodramatic nymphomaniac and one well-meaning warrior. Add two offspring — one pristine, another psychotic. Then a few more siblings, and a couple of suitors, from different points along the naughty to nice continuum. Mix in a noble choice with life altering consequences. Finish with generous helpings of rape, mayhem and murder. First simmer, then broil. You’ve got “Titus Andronicus,” Shakespeare’s recipe for revenge.

In modern-day parlance, I suppose “Titus Andronicus” is a sort of “Shakespeare meets SVU.” Or “Sweeney Todd” without the soundtrack. It’s the tale of a good man who snaps — not once, but twice — after his daughter’s violent assault. A downward spiral once harmless grows heinous, then unimaginably evil. But with a surprising montage of humorous moments along the way.

You can enjoy a taste of “Titus” through Sept 24. It’s being performed by Southwest Shakespeare Company at the Mesa Arts Center — inside an intimate theater just right for a work of this intensity. The audience is seated along the two longer sides of a rectangular platform where actors perform at eye level. This violence, though not depicted with traditional blood and gore props, is very much in your face.

The platform touches a single wall, where a collection of swords and masks hang above a simple bench. There’s space off the other end of the platform, near the audience entryway — where some of the action occurs. Folks in the front row on either side of the stage must beware. Accidentally thrust out a foot and Titus could be toast.

Titus is played by Randy Messersmith, head of the theater arts department at Scottsdale Community College, who had me worried early on with his evenly-paced words and movement. Just as Justine Hartley, who plays Goth queen Tamora, took me aback with her diva-like depiction of grief in the opening scene.

Randy Messersmith (kneeling), pictured here during rehearsals with Jesse James Kamps (L) and director David Barker. Messersmith has since lost his shirt and his locks.

But they’re each laying those first bricks in the foundation of a story that needs room to grow. Without all that weeping and gnashing of teeth, it’s hard to envision one woman wreaking so much havoc. And all that civility and calm Messersmith brings to Titus as a triumphant warrior is what makes his demise as defeated father truly tragic.

Part of the intrigue in watching Shakespeare’s work is seeing his characters’ true colors unfold. It’s especially true in “Titus,” where the turn of events leads to truly chilling consequences that might have felt entirely out of proportion in a pre-9/11 world. But we’ve seen more than once just this century alone what can happen when a single soul feels agrieved.

I thought often during “Titus” of my husband and his tender relationship to our daughters, wondering how far he might go in the face of the unfathomable. Dawn Rochelle Tucker, who plays Titus’ daughter Lavinia, transforms the play from an abstract piece of theater to a compelling tale every parent can relate to.

Dawn Rochelle Tucker (L) rehearses with Jesse James Kamps, who plays compassionate brother to a sister mocked and mutilated

Many familiar with Shakespeare would advise the uninitiated to start somewhere else, just about anywhere else, in exploring Shakespeare’s canon. There’s a reason Southwest Shakespeare Company is performing it only now, as the opener for its 18th season.

But this particular production, brilliantly directed and staged by David Barker, is a perfect introduction to Shakespeare. Weighing in at a lean 90 minutes (about two hours counting intermission), it shaves a good hour off the time it takes to enjoy a typical serving of Shakespeare. The plotline is easy to follow for those who don’t have the luxury of brushing up their Shakespeare before attending.

I have mixed feelings about recommending this work for teens. Barker’s vision is beautifully executed — a “must see” in many ways for serious students of the theater. His use of color, shadow and actor-generated sound effects is breathtaking. The costumes, props and lighting prove that less can be more — even, and especially, in a world so obsessed with a constant barrage of stimulation serving no higher purpose. 

I was struck, when first taking my seat, by a row of simple objects that hang or stand along one wall in the theater, just feet from some audience members. A long, tangled rope. Two pairs of tall rods. Several masks and a single white sheet — at first a death cloth, then a royal’s robe.

Producing artistic director Jared Sakren (R) talks with cast members about mask work

All are transformed — often with large black lights mounted high and low along each corner of the stage — into a true feast for the senses. It’s rare to leave a work of theater feeling you’ve just experienced a masterful exhibit of visual arts, but “Titus” makes that impression.

On the other hand, the actions wrought by revenge are hard to stomach. I don’t know that “Titus” is the best choice for teens struggling with serious emotional issues of a much higher magnitude than worrying over what to wear to the prom. But it is a convincing morality tale for a day and age when one act of bullying can too easily escalate into an endless stream of aggression. In most cases, parents and teachers should see “Titus” for themselves before taking younger audiences.

Oediupus had his mommy. Sweeney his lovely wife. And Titus his beloved daughter. But the differences are stark. We never see Sweeney Todd before his decline into revenge ala razor mode. The musical opens long after he’s lost his wife and daughter. In “Titus” we see both the “before” and “after” of a man who opts for sword instead of scissors but brings a similar fate to those around him.

Yet Shakespeare, like Sondheim, also delivers a man who’s just plain evil from the get-go. For Sondheim, it’s Judge Turpin, the man who kidnaps Todd’s fragile wife and daughter. For Shakespeare it’s a Moor named Aaron, who faces death by gleefully confessing his regret for having not murdered many more.

Jeffrey Lamar’s performance as Aaron gives us a glimmer of hope, as he begs for the life of his infant son, that even the most wretched man might have a soul. Still, his final scene left me wanting to run right out and do a Childsplay chaser. Leave the kids at home if you’re going to see “Titus” this weekend, but buy a set of tickets to “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” too.

Titus will leave you wanting more time with your children and the balance of a story with a much lighter touch.

— Lynn

Note: Learn more about Southwest Shakespeare Company, headed by producing artistic director Jared Sakren, at www.swshakespeare.org. “Titus Andronicus” features costume design by Lois K. Myers, lighting design by Daniel Davisson and scenic design by Karen Siefried. All photos by stage manager Kati Long (thanks to her nifty iPhone) and courtesy of Southwest Shakespeare Company. Production photos are available on the company’s Facebook page.

Coming up: From thespian to med student