Tag Archives: The Sun Serpent

“The Sun Serpent”

An early rendering of "The Sun Serpent" set design

For two years, a unique collaboration of Valley artists and arts organizations have worked together to bring “The Sun Serpent” by José Cruz González to Valley  audiences. It’s being performed through Nov. 13 by Childsplay, a Tempe-based theater company specializing in works for young audiences and families.

“The Sun Serpent” is an adventure tale on a grand scale. It depicts the collision of worlds old and new as a boy struggles to save his family and preserve the memory of his Aztec culture, bringing the conquest of Mexico to life through captivating media, masks, music and more.

Entering the studio theater at Tempe Center for the Arts Saturday evening, I felt transported to another world. Lush rainforest scenes, the work of projection designer Adam Larsen, were projected onto three giant panels layered on each side of the stage.

Lights with a beautiful blend of blue and green, the work of lighting designer Tim Monson, shown down onto large Aztec images painted on the stage — the work of scenic designer Carey Wong. A gentle cloud of mist hovered over the stage as sounds of birds and other rainforest creatures, the work of sound designer Christopher Neumeyer, floated through the air. It was breathtaking.

“The Sun Serpent” marries the best of traditional storytelling with technology. As its three main characters — a young boy, his widowed grandmother and his older brother — face cultural shifts with diverse motivations and dreams, projections reflect their changing world.

We see foreign ships approaching the shore, villages consumed by fire, and journeys trekked over mountaintops — all part of a visual feast best suited for audience members ages 8 & above. There’s greed, death and betrayal. But also hope and courage. “The Sun Serpent,” says director Rachel Bowditch, “portrays the strength of the human spirit.”

The creative team also includes composer Daniel Valdez, costume designer Connie Furr-Soloman, mask designer Zarco Guerrero and puppet designer Jim Luther. Amy Gilbert, who recently made the move from Atlanta to Arizona, serves as stage manager.

David Saar has directed and taught for Childsplay since it began in 1977. Managing director Steve Martin, also president of the board for Arizona Citizens Action for the Arts, is enjoying his 11th season with Childsplay.

Just three actors peform 30 roles in the Childsplay production of “The Sun Serpent.” Andrés Alcalá (Tlememe), an associate artist with Childsplay since 2007, has also performed with Actors Theatre of Phoenix, the Southwest Shakespeare Company, Nearly Naked Theatre and Phoenix Theatre.

Ricky Araiza (Young/Elder Anáhuac), an Arizona native who attended Brophy College Preparatory, graduated from ASU in 2004 with a B.A. in theatre before pursuing additional training in ensemble-based physical theater. Araiza is a freelance acting and movement teacher studying mask-making with Zarco Guerrero.

Andréa Morales (Anci) previously spent five seasons as a Childsplay company member, but now lives in Chicago, where she is a company member of Halcyon Theatre and an artistic associate of Polarity Ensemble Theatre.

As I chatted with cast members after the show, I marveled at the amazing depth and breadth of Childsplay offerings. It seems only yesterday that I was watching Childsplay associate artists D. Scott Withers and Jon Gentry bounce, run, bark and drive around in circles during a theater-in-the-round performance of “Go, Dog. Go!” You never know where the artistry of Childsplay might take you.

— Lynn

Note: Click here for additonal show and ticket information, and here to learn about other works being presented as part of the CALA Festival.

Coming up: Border tales

Update: Playwright José Cruz Gonzaléz writes about developing “The Sun Serpent” and his experiences with Childsplay in an article titled “Chasing the Sun” published in the January 2012 issue of “American Theatre” magazine. 1/4/12


Mask tales

There’s a moment, during the Childsplay production of a play titled “The Sun Serpent,” when the audience gasps as the stunning set grows even more exquisite. It’s the moment when rows of masks created by the Valley’s own Zarco Guerrero are revealed — glowing with light as the stage grows dark.

Guerrero’s masks, which he sometimes creates “early in the morning or late at night” in his home studio, are featured throughout “The Sun Serpent.” Guerrero says he spends about 10-12 hours a day in the studio, but he’s also a performance artist who shares stories and more several times a week in school, conference or festival settings.

I first experienced Guerrero’s work while attending the Arizona Humanities Festival, where he and wife Carmen shared Day of the Dead lore through song, masks and readings from a book Guerrero authored titled “We Decorate the Dead.” Their work is ripe with rhythm and rich language.

“I grew up around a lot of creativity and love of art,” shares Guerrero. His father was a portrait artist, his mother a dressmaker. “I read lots of books about art from my father’s library and started drawing early in life.” But his “real love” is sculpture.

Zarco Guerrero poses with a sea of masks

“I never made a conscious decision to make masks,” says Guerrero, “because I was trained as a portrait painter and sculptor.” It was other mask makers in Mexico and “theater people” who first encouraged him to do mask work. “After fifty years,” Guerrero muses, “you could say it’s become an obsession.”

Guerrero notes that “masks have played a vital role in many cultures throughout the world” — adding that they’ve been used “to hunt, to heal and to maintain certain social orders.” Masks are powerful, reflects Guerrero, because “they allow the person wearing them to transform into someone or something else.”

“The Sun Serpent” has dominated Guerrero’s creative life since May. He was invited to participate in the production by Daniel Valdez, a friend who serves as the play’s composer. They’ve “worked and collaborated together” before — most recently on the Stanford University production of “Ollin.”

But Geurrero also counts acting among his list of credits, noting that he was the lead some two decades ago in a Childsplay production titled “La Mascarada de la Vida” which was performed both locally and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Both Zarco and Carmen Guerrero sat front and center for Friday night’s VIP performance of “The Sun Serpent” at the Tempe Center for the Arts — close enough to the stage to feel the wisp of a beautiful blue scarf used during the play to portray running water. When Childsplay recognized the many artists and partners who’ve worked together for two years to bring “The Sun Serpent” to the stage, his work was loudly applauded.

The three person cast of “The Sun Serpent” — who play a total of 30 roles made possible by variations in masks, movement and multi-media elements — stayed after Friday evening’s performance (their third of the day), to answer questions about the production. One audience member asked about the making of the masks.

Turns out they’re made from plaster bandages and paper clay. The masks are formed to the actors’ faces early on, then handcrafted and embellished by Guerrero. “I call the masks ‘invisible masks’ because they are meant to disppear on the face,” he explains. A grandmother mask the audience sees as the play opens is just one of 60 created for the show.

But it was a mask depicting a powerful god that most impressed a first-grade boy I spoke with after the show. Something tells me he’s destined for some amazing art adventures of his own. As we spoke, he drew me close to an art installation featuring amber-colored insets, showing me his favorite cylinder. It contains the tiny replica of an animal — something I had yet to discover despite all my time admiring the work.

“The Sun Serpent” is recommended for ages eight and up. If your child or teen sees only one live theater production this season, make this the one. It’s operatic in scope and scale, features bold and brilliant artistry, and combines the best of simple yet sophisticated storytelling.

After the show, you’ll be able to enjoy several art- and literature-related activities offered by Childsplay in the Tempe Center for the Arts lobby — then run right home for some creativity time of your own. Guerrero recommends that “kids draw and color everything they can.” And his work serves as the perfect inspiration.

— Lynn

Note: Guerrero shares that plaster bandage, available at most art stores, is easy and safe to use. For more art inspiration, visit his website at zarkmask.com. Click here to read about a current exhibition of  Guerrero’s work in Colorado.

Coming up: More musings on “The Sun Serpent,” Dia de los Muertos — library style

Art meets Americas

It’s the inaugural year of a biannual festival presented by the CALA Alliance — which champions the importance of Latino art and culture, from both North and South America, to Arizona.

Alliance partners include the Arizona Latino Art and Cultural Center (ALAC), which has an exhibit and performance venue called “Galleria 147” just across the street from Symphony Hall in Phoenix. Also XICO, which promotes Chicano artists. And Chicano Por La Casa (CPLC), which works to empower families in economically deprived communities.

Teatro Bravo presents a play about Frida Kahlo as part of the fall CALA festival

“Celebracion Artistica de las Americas,” also dubbed the “CALA festival,” takes place at various venues Sept 16-Nov 6, 2011. Its mission is “to create shared arts experiences that encourage cultural understanding between people of the Americas.”

Several arts and cultural organizations were selected through a jury process and given awards of various sizes to present their works during this fall’s festival.

These organizations include the Arizona Latino Arts and Cultural Center (ALAC), the Children’s Museum of Phoenix, the Cultural Coaltion, the Desert Botanical Garden, the Heard Museum, the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM), the New Carpa Theater Company, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Phoenix Boys Choir, the Scottsdale Cultural Council, the Scottsdale International Film Festival, Teatro Bravo! and XICO.

Festival offerings will include visual art, theater, music, film, dance, poetry and more. Many include experiences and hands-on activities for youth. Two educational initiatives, supported by Target (the festival’s presenting sponsor), are expected to reach thousands of Valley school children.

Phoenix Art Museum docents will read a book about artist Diego Rivera to students who will then get to take home their own copy of the book. They’ll also create their own mural. Childsplay will perform “The Sun Serpent” by Jose Cruz Gonzeles for students, some of whom have never before experienced live theater.

Children. Creavity. Collaboration. Community.


— Lynn

Note: Learn more at www.calaalliance.org. Head to “First Fridays” at ALAC Fri, Sept 2, for a 6pm-10pm line-up that includes visual artists Juan Chawuk and Carlos Navarrete, poet Maria Rodriguez-Pope, filmmaker Valeria Fernandez, dance group Ballet Folklorico Esperanza, musician Cisco Arvallo and a Teatro Bravo presentation of “Frida.” 

Coming up: Celebrating “Day of the Dead” arts and culture style, Orchestral dreams, Student discount alert!