Two productions that opened last week--Leading Ladies at the UA and Borderlands' Our Dad Is in Atlantis--are in many ways polar opposites, but both succeed and are well worth seeing.
Arizona Repertory Theatre, UA's student program, delivers a screwball comedy with lots of laughs. Leading Ladies, written by Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor), follows two British Shakespearean actors, Jack Gable (Steve Gaeto) and Leo Clark (Brad Kula), playing Moose Lodges in the 1950s. After 10 years in this wilderness, they're desperate enough to scam a dying widow (Shannon Paige Corrigan) for a cut of $3 million. All they have to do is convince everyone that they are her long-lost English relatives. Jack's so fixated on the money that the facts--her long-lost relatives, Maxine and Stephanie, are women; Stephanie is a deaf mute; and did I mention that the only female clothes available are Shakespearean costumes for the likes of Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth?--are merely speed bumps to his plotting.
As with all screwball comedies, complications pile up. The widow lingers. Her sole heir, American niece Meg Snider (Charlotte Bernhardt), is beautiful, idolizes Jack the actor and doesn't really care about the money--so, of course, Jack/Maxine falls in love with her. And, of course, her fiancé, Duncan Wooley (Jonathan Kobritz), wants that money to feed his ambitions.
Also along for the ride are Lauren Stinson as a shrill-voiced blonde, Audrey; Ryan DeLuca as her fiancé, Butch Myers; and UA theater assistant professor Kevin Black as Doc Myers, Butch's father and Moose Lodge master of ceremonies.
Guest director Samantha Wyer, from Arizona Theatre Company, makes this chaos coherent. The young actors execute with expert timing, holding the production to frenetic farce without going over the top into self-parody. A short elegant ballroom-dancing sequence, choreographed by Wyer, changes the pace before the production plunges into the madcap resolution.
As always, vocal coach Dianne J. Winslow does an excellent job, especially on the English accents of Gaeto and Kula.
One measure of Gaeto and Kula's skills and timing came on opening night when Gaeto accidently dropped a chunk of a banana on the floor while they simulated a bumpy train ride. Gaeto casually retrieved the banana, gesturing with it while Kula eyed it hungrily. Gaeto finally popped it into his mouth, simultaneously demonstrating a serious commitment to his craft, a well-honed comic instinct and a disregard for hygiene.
Black also provided a brassy, mature but well-nuanced performance. Hopefully, kissing a student (Kula as Stephanie) is allowed if it's onstage and in the script.
Sometimes, watching a student production is painful. Such was the case with Leading Ladies: Your face will hurt from laughing almost nonstop for 2 1/2 hours.
Borderlands Theater's production of Our Dad Is in Atlantis/Papá está en la Atlántida is a different matter: Here, the portrayal of young and innocent children in a world where they have been forgotten will break your heart. Some in the audience may be reduced to tears of sorrow and frustration by the tragic conclusion.
The play, by Javier Malpica and translated to English by Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas, is told in a series of vignettes. Most performances are in English, but selected performances are in Spanish.
We learn through the two nameless characters, known only as Little Brother (Bryant Enriquez) and Big Brother (Rafael Martinez), how their father, devastated by the illness and death of their mother, has gone to "Atlantis," in the naïve interpretation, to find work. Over the course of the play, the two are shuttled off to various unsuitable relatives, until they take matters into their own hands and head out into the desert near Nogales to find their father.
Enriquez as Little Brother vacillates between annoyingly boundless juvenile optimism and a hangdog childish mope when reined in by his brother, who serves as his protector. Martinez gives Big Brother a smart degree of dignity, courage tempered by his age-limited abilities for realistic assessment and hopes for some semblance of a normal life.
In their world, the most terrifying threats are demons that can emerge from mirrors and steal your memories. The best gift they receive is boxing lessons to help defend them. A battery-less Game Boy sparks their imaginations for what might be.
Director Eva Zorrilla Tessler uses everything to tell the story, from the boys' ubiquitous backpacks to the darkened transitions between scenes. The evocative use of sound by composer Roger Foreman becomes a third character in the production, functioning as an audio-vérité Greek chorus of indifference.
In the end, the political and economic issues that have shaped the situation are forgotten, and the audience feels as helpless and desperate as these two boys are, lost in the uncaring desert.