All these plays are recent, and two are world premieres, but each is a metamorphosis of an earlier work. At Invisible Theatre, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years brings a 1993 nonfiction book, essentially an oral history, to the stage. At Arizona Theatre Company, Over the Moon orbits a 1927 P.G. Wodehouse comic novel. And Borderlands Theater flips the switch on Electricidad, a Chicano updating of Sophocles' 2,400-year-old play Electra.
While the first two productions have something to recommend them, Electricidad is the only one that makes full contact with its source material as well as its production team and contemporary audience. You'd think Sophocles, so far removed from us in time and culture, could hardly find relevance in Tucson's southside barrio, but the Greek preoccupation with unity of theatrical time and space has produced a timeless family tragedy.
Borderlands commissioned Electricidad from Luis Alfaro, who cites Sophocles as his inspiration for the play. Yet there's something of Euripides in the result as well. Euripides' version of the story, set in front of a peasant's hut rather than a palace, is grittier and more colloquial than Sophocles', and Euripides' style echoes through Alfaro's reconceptualization.
Alfaro has stripped one important male character from the classic story, centering the action on the ambitions of the female members of a latter-day House of Atreus. The mother of the family, Clemencia, has essentially taken over the neighborhood gang by having her drug-addled informer of a husband killed and by sending her son, Orestes, off to an obscure casino job in Las Vegas. "It's like she walked into a Target for the first time--she wants it all," observes one character.
But Clemencia's daughter, Electricidad, crackles with grief and vengeance. She has snatched her father's body from Carrillo's Mortuary and laid it on a makeshift altar in the family's front yard. There, she keeps vigil in the sun and rain, awaiting her chance to strike back, while the vecinos, or neighbors, gossip in a mixture of disgust and sympathy.
Alfaro writes in Spanglish, often veering from English to Spanish within a single sentence. Most of the script settles into English, though, and even monolingual Anglos should have no trouble getting the gist of the Spanish phrases. This is, after all, the way a lot of border Chicanos talk, slipping constantly between two linguistic worlds, easily coercing one language to conform to the rhythms of the other.
Alfaro's dialog can be vicious, but it's also often quite funny in its taste for incongruity. Observing Electricidad wailing over the corpse in the yard, Clemencia cracks, "That's why we need a neighborhood association." And Electricidad's sister, a former gang member who has now joined a convent and advocates forgiveness, snaps at our heroine, "Get over yourself, you stupid bitch. Jesus loves you."
But it's high tension that really sustains this play; Alfaro generates it, and director Barclay Goldsmith conducts it to a fine, large cast that includes Minerva Garcia as Electricidad, lunging and snarling like a wolf in a trap at anyone who comes near her father's corpse; Alma Martinez as Clemencia, bossy and trashy but not quite sure how to wield her power; and Justin Huen as Orestes, well-meaning but weak and susceptible to the seductive, brutal force of his sister.
John Longhofer provides another outstanding set, this time a crude stone altar before the fractured frame of a house, which lies under power lines running to an ominous, huge transformer suspended over the stage apron. Sound designer T. Greg Squires creates a remarkable aural montage at the play's beginning, the transformer's hum melting into radio static that resolves into aural fragments of scenes to come as they flash across the stage.
I FELT GUILTY AND curmudgeonly for leaving Over the Moon at the Temple of Music and Art without a spring in my step and laughter in my heart.
Much of this Stephen Dietz adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse's comic novel The Small Bachelor induces rampant chuckles, and the premiere production reunites many of the best comic actors who have goofed their way across ATC's stage in recent seasons.
But something seemed wrong from beginning to end, and I realized what it was only with the play's next-to-last line. Two characters bump into each other; one begs pardon, and the other chirps, "No worries!"
Now, Over the Moon is set in 1927 New York City, and makes a point of digging up every bit of '20s slang short of "23 skidoo," yet here is someone blurting out a syntactic abomination recently imported from Australia.
This blunder is emblematic of the production's fatal flaw: Writer Dietz and director David Ira Goldstein fail to find and sustain a single, appropriate tone. The play steps out as a Wildean comedy of manners, slips into Hollywood screwball comedy and ultimately slams its fingers in the door of Feydeau sex farce. In the farcical bits, especially, the pacing is off, with a labored police raid on a speakeasy and a desultory guess-who's-undressed-behind-which-door game.
Even Ken Ruta, the finest actor ever associated with ATC, period, can't quite make his character cohere. He plays Sigsbee Waddington, an elderly Park Avenue former millionaire living off his wife's riches and dreaming of life out West; he dons chaps over his tux pants, sports a cowboy hat and twirls a petrified lariat while spouting clichés from Western dime novels. Ruta plays Sigsbee as part Lionel Barrymore, part Wallace Beery and part Yosemite Sam. But it would have been so much funnier, and truer to character, if he'd ditched Yosemite Sam and applied a Thurston Howell III drawl to lines like "Well, slap me with a skunk and call me Stinky."
Oh, and the story? Sigsbee is the father of fetching young Molly (Liz McCarthy), who is bashfully pursued by an independently wealthy but very bad Greenwich Village artist named George Finch (R. Hamilton Wright). The match is adamantly opposed by Molly's stepmother (Suzy Hunt, looking exactly like a society matron from a New Yorker cover), who assumes George to be an impoverished bohemian too fond of the ukulele. Assisting the match is a self-satisfied self-help pamphleteer named Hamilton Beamish (deadpan master Bob Sorenson, oddly reminiscent of the eccentric millionaire played by Rudy Vallee in Palm Beach Story). Assisting Mrs. Waddington in her opposition is her sneering English butler (the delectably devious David Pichette). Complicating matters is the fact that Hamilton falls in love with a phony palm reader (the delectable Kirsten Potter), not to mention the presence of a cop who would be a poet (Jeff Steitzer), a burglar turned valet (Roberto Guajardo) and his larcenous girlfriend (Julie Briskman).
There's plenty of good material here, although too many turns of phrase in the first scene are English rather than American, and you sense that the play really wants to be set in London, despite the Prohibition gags. Yet too often, simple, amusing bits get pushed too far--not just Steitzer's sneezing scene, but even ex-con Guajardo's costumes, all of which involve prison-like stripes; it's actually a relief to see this man strip down to his underwear.
Other problems: Wright is appealingly naive, but a bit too old for his character; Dietz gives Molly and the palmist witty introductory scenes, but then just drapes them along the edges of the script like window dressing.
And so on. It's a bad sign when one emerges from a comedy niggling rather than giggling. In its present form, as a Roaring '20s frolic, Over the Moon is hardly the bee's knees.
IN HAVING OUR Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, playwright Emily Mann introduces us to a pair of very elderly ladies--Bessie, 101, and Sadie, 104--whose family stories illustrate certain near-universal elements of African-American experience from the 1820s to the mid-20th century. This is not to say that all African-Americans rubbed shoulders with leading figures in the Harlem Renaissance or got to meet Eleanor Roosevelt, as did the Delanys. But, like these sisters, they did have to figure out how to lead meaningful, self-fulfilling lives in a society that was, at best, indifferent and, at worst, deadly.
The Delany sisters were unmarried, retired career women who, around age 100, became famous when they told their life stories to reporter Amy Hill Hearth. The resulting book lent its title to this Emily Mann play, set in 1993 in the sisters' living room. The characters, played at Invisible Theatre by real-life sisters Kii-Chii "Kotch" Keiser and To-Reé-Neé Wolf Keiser, simply sit down and share their histories with us. Sadie, sweet and a little shy, somehow does most of the talking; the more vinegary Bess frequently jumps in with no-nonsense interjections.
The remarkable thing about the Delany sisters is how unremarkable their lives were. They grew up in a loving family headed by two well-educated parents, went to college, joined white-collar professions (Sadie as a high-school teacher, Bessie as a dentist) and enjoyed long, quiet retirements. What a routine 20th century, white, middle-class existence--except that the Delanys were black and got their starts in the 19th century. Their less happy experiences were, alas, equally unremarkable among African Americans of the period: Sadie getting ahead only through the subterfuge of playing dumb, Bessie standing up for herself and almost getting lynched for it.
The most intriguing stories belong to the sisters' parents and grandparents. Their father, for example, was born a slave but rose to become America's first black Episcopal bishop. Their mother was the valedictorian of her college class, and you have to go back a couple of generations further to find a full-blooded African-American in her devoted, interracial family.
Nineteenth-century family history occupies the first act; the period seems idyllic compared to the sisters' early maturity, when Jim Crow laws took effect and the Delany family suddenly found itself at the back of the bus. Until then, life for North Carolina blacks surely hadn't been quite as paradisaical as the sisters recall; we are, after all, dealing with the selective memories of two very old women conjuring up their very early childhoods.
Having Our Say would be a more interesting, theatrical play had Mann toyed with the idea of memory, or introduced another actor or two to portray characters from the past with whom the sisters could interact. As it is, Sadie and Bessie hardly interact with each other, aside from overlapping their lines whenever Mann realizes her iterations of dates and genealogies are getting dry. Fortunately, director Susan Claassen creates some much-needed human connections on stage; most often, this is a simple matter of a touch or a glance, but at one point, the sisters sit at a table paring and chopping vegetables, the rhythms and gestures of work so smooth and easy that they seem to be accomplished by a single person with four hands.
Otherwise, what we have is a stereophonic monolog, not the sort of thing that brings out the best in the sister actresses. Kotch, in particular, who assumes the greatest narrative burden, falls into a storybook recitation style. This might be all right for a readers' theater or radio production, but in a fully staged version in which the character is addressing the audience as if it were a visitor to her home, a more personal, conversational tone would seem appropriate.
Even so, the Keisers have a good rapport with each other--something you can't take for granted with siblings--and they create for us two African-American characters we badly need to see. The black figures who populate TV, movies and even the theater are more often than not downtrodden dirt farmers, downtrodden ghetto dwellers, strutting gangstas, pimps, whores, expendable sidekicks, oversexed entertainers or smart-ass comedians. The Delany sisters are just two ordinary middle-class women who enjoyed some lucky breaks to balance the quotidian unfairness they faced through their lives, and who made something of themselves through intelligence, work and love. They're good examples for all of us.