Saturday, September 3, 2016

Where You Come From: The House on Mango Street

by Jenni Morin

Last produced in San Antonio 20 years ago, Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, adapted for the stage by Amy Ludwig, opens The Classic Theatre of San Antonio season with an impressive brandishing of culture. The House on Mango Street, now showing through September 25, demonstrates the profundity of simplistic storytelling and the value of cultural and self-awareness.

The House on Mango Street is a coming-of-age story comprised of vignettes from young Esperanza’s upbringing in Chicago. From the carefree games of preadolescence to the cusp of puberty to the confusion of teenage sexuality, Esperanza details her keen observances of the relationships, interactions and choices – especially of women – that seem to trap them on Mango Street. As she struggles to belong, she must accept her family, friends and Chicano culture will “always be who you are.” She vows to leave Mango Street, rejecting the prescribed gender role and place by a window, knowing she must one day return for the betterment of the community and those who are not able to leave.

Director José Rubén De León resurrects The House on Mango Street with fervor and grace, orchestrating an engaging production emphasizing the many talents of the cast. Thrust into the role of Younger Esperanza a mere eight days prior to opening, Bella Villarreal naturally portrays the innocence of the lead role even while referring to a prop prompt book, which feels more fitting for the character than distracting. Gypsy Pantoja as Older Esperanza guides her younger self through each scene, providing a wise foreseeing lens from which to view each experience. Averaging more than eight personas each, the supporting ensemble cast animated the vignettes with a volley of stock and endearing characters and provided a temperate pace. Maria A. Ibarra bore most of the maternal roles, each with a distinct backstory. The comedic roles fell to the hilarious Eraina Porras, while Arianna Angeles compassionately delivered dramatic moments. Athough the male characters are less defined in the script by design, Salvador Valadez, Gabriel Sanchez and Joshua Segovia were not deterred and all delivered compelling performances.

The production becomes the embodiment of Esperanza’s stories when the dull backdrop of the set is imbued with color and life as the vignettes paint vivid memories across the static scenery. Allan S. Ross’ set provides a near blank canvas to accommodate the script while maintaining his signature textures and dimensionality and prominently displaying the reality and the dream of the play’s title. Costume Designer Jodi Karjala stepped up to the challenge of visually distinguishing each character, while Pedro Ramirez delineated scenes and added a layer of subtlety with his lighting design. While the execution of the sound often felt choppy and abrupt in transitions, Rick Malone’s music and effects choices were inviting and invigorating.

From the importance of education to being comfortable in one’s own skin, the play’s message of empowerment especially encourages girls to change their own lives rather than waiting for someone else to. With an infusion of language and culture, The Classic Theatre production of The House on Mango Street exemplifies how talent elevates a script when simply told.


The House on Mango Street will run at The Classic Theatre through September 25, 2016 with performances at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit classictheatre.org.

Friday, June 17, 2016

14 Preserves Innocence

by Jenni Morin

In the wake of the Orlando shooting, 14 Creator and Director Roberto Prestigiacomo offers a glimmer of joy and a sense of peace in youthful naivety. In its last weekend at the Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater at the Tobin Center, AtticRep’s 14 is a beacon of hope for a better future through the post-9/11 generation.

AtticRep's 14 at the Tobin Center. Photo by Siggi Ragnar.
Exploring the life experiences through the eyes of a rising teenager, Prestiagiacomo creates a fantastical world of beauty, light, and freedom. Even with the challenges of childhood – fitting in and finding an identity – the main character, Maia, retains her childlike virtuosity. She finds strength after nearly being blown away, learning to float and fly. Her curiosity is not dampened by an onslaught of social media, visual stimuli, or commercials, which she’s able to mute in the background since her entire life experience has always consisted of these things. As she grapples with making sense of history and iconic figures, such as Santa, in her life, she learns to distinguish and analyze, but never loses her sense of wonder. Maia embodies the simplicity of childhood and 14 captures an age just before the superficialities of teenage angst take over.

A refreshing piece of performance art, 14 showcases the strength of not only its dancers, but of dance as an emotive art form. Just as Prestigiacomo described, the theatre is transformed into a safe place void of tragedy, war, and hate. The show opens with an almost robotic building of the New York skyline with books. The movement choreographed by Mireya Guerra seems to represent the clockwork dependability and structure of the twin towers and world economy prior to the terrorist attack. A toppling of rectangles of light, a virtual set hauntingly designed by Stefano Di Buduo, is the precursor to the world Maia will enter. Corie Altaffer portrays Maia with an unbreakable confidence as she exhibits great control in her dance and aerial pieces and intense emotion in more stylized scenes. Choreographed by Julia Langenberg, aerialists Jenny Been Franckowiak and Elise Thea Sipos were mesmerizing as they twirled and posed in midair, eliciting gasps from the audience as they plummeted to the floor only to be caught by their fabric harnesses. Even though the contemporary dance pieces felt repetitious at times, choreographer Seme Jatib produced a comfort through consistency as well as a sense of identity. From the naked umbrella, which provides no shield from the elements, to the primary metallic Mylar balloons, to the ominous glowing masks, to the onstage slip and slide, each detail echoes the uncertain world where nonchalance is unattainable and fear is inevitable, yet happiness may always be just within grasp. Movers Georgette Lockwood, Mike Maria, Sarah Modisette, Maggie Tonra, and Gabriela Vazquez anchored the production’s tone, set the mood, and brought life to a silent, yet deafening, world.

At the intersection of dance and media, 14 is the innocence and glee seemingly long forgotten, but alive and well within the theater walls. AtticRep gives testament to the power of art and live performance to transport audiences to another place and time, rejuvenate the soul, and remind of the good and beautiful in the world.


AtticRep’s 14 plays at the Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater at the Tobin Center through June 19, 2016 with final performances on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. For more information and to reserve tickets, visit atticrep.org.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Tribes: Language, Identity, Impact

by Jenni Morin

Tribes, by British playwright Nina Raine, explores how one’s mode of communication can define identity and belonging, while creating silos of communities. Now showing in the Cellar Theater through June 12, The Playhouse’s production of Tribes is an intense confrontation of connections taken for granted and language, spoken and unspoken.

Tribes opens with Christopher and Beth, both in their 60’s, dealing with all three of their adult children living at home again by spouting obscenities and disapproval. The family is supportive and loving in a damaging hyper-critical kind of way as Ruth tries to launch a career in opera, Daniel deals with relationship and psychological problems, and Billy, who is deaf from birth, returns home after college only to realize how much his family ignores him. The chaotic conversation of language and literature dominates this household of self-proclaimed creatives, while Billy’s inability to fully grasp the conversation or participate in it increasingly isolates him. When he finds solace and a companion in Sylvia at a deaf art show, he begins to immerse himself in the deaf community. As their relationship grows, Sylvia struggles with slowly losing her own hearing and Billy confronts his family. Each character must find a way to fit in, either within the family or their new personal situation, and express themselves in a way that may redefines their identity and how others interact with them.

Deafness is surprisingly loud as the Tribe characters describe the roars, rumbles, static and interference that bombard them in the same way the noise pollution of the human, animal, musical, mechanical, and electronic sounds disrupt a hearing person’s concentration. All the characters struggle with distinguishing what is being communicated through the noise and translating it into an understandable language, which is revealed as inextricably tied to their identities. While what a person is may be defined externally, determining the who can incite an internal struggle for finding identity and community. The cautionary tale of the Tribes family is the isolation of their household and self-disenfranchisement from a larger community, which could offer a sense of belonging as Billy discovers. Unfortunately, an individual’s identity is as much their personal discovery as it is society’s assignment, and conforming to the pre-determined abilities and disabilities of those assignments often outweighs respect for the person. What breaks apart the family in the play, and society as a whole, is an unwillingness to listen and let a person communicate—by expressing themselves in whatever language they choose, verbal or nonverbal—who they are and whether they consider their differences abilities or disabilities.

Director John O’Neill presents a compelling production with a diversely talented cast as he maneuvers actors through a literal and metaphorical treacherous terrain. Mark McCarver showcases his immense range in portraying Billy and taking on sign language for an emotional climax. Dedicated to his bombastic rants, Gary Hoeffler brings life to the polarizing character of Christopher. Kathy Couser beautifully plays Beth as the mother who holds the family together. Kimberlyn Gumm’s Ruth manages being over dramatic and levelheaded, often providing much-needed comedic relief. John Stillwaggon takes on a difficult role in Daniel, but the execution feels distracting and inflated at times. As Sylvia, McKenna Liesman provides a confident and solid performance, demonstrating her talent and range.

The set design by Ryan DeRoos impressively accommodates a large number of actors for the Cellar’s limited space, allowing them to move freely around the varied levels within the design of the living/dining area of the house, as well as the sliver reserved for Billy and Sylvia’s interactions. Pat Smith’s sound design begins with ironically tranquil symphonic interludes then slowly comes to mirror the disruption of normality, while simultaneously providing an auditory sampling of the noise of deafness. Angela Hoeffler’s costuming is both appropriate and flattering, yet sometimes at odds with the less than modern props and furniture. The addition of projected subtitles was welcome and a nice multimedia touch, along with the attempt to visually illustrate music to cap the first act. The lighting by Rachel Atkinson was suitable, although it occasionally made the subtitles difficult to read and felt disjointed with the sound coming out of scene transitions.

Tribes offers a profoundly different theatre experience while demonstrating how inclusiveness can elevate empathy and the senses for a visceral audience reaction. The Playhouse production of Tribes is an impressive confluence of language, emotion, and technical compliments, and a prime example of how theatre can be both impactful and introspective.


Tribes runs at The Playhouse Cellar Theater through June 12 with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and on Sundays at 3 p.m. For more information and to reserve tickets, visit theplayhousesa.org.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Born Yesterday: Knowledge is Power

by Jenni Morin

In the 70 years since Born Yesterday was penned by Garson Kanin, the nature of the government seems to have changed very little as corrupt officials and crooked businessmen sticking their fingers in politics continue to have more say than the people. With great attention to detail and a superb cast, The Classic Theatre of San Antonio proves Born Yesterday is just as relevant as it was in 1946.

Greg Hinojosa and Hayley Burnside in
The Classic Theatre's Born Yesterday.
When nefarious businessman Harry Brock comes to Washington, D.C. to bribe Senator Norval Hedges to pass legislation for his profit, his lawyer Ed Devery points out that his unrefined and flighty girlfriend, Billie Dawn, may become a liability in his business dealings. Enlisting the services of Journalist Paul Verrall to smarten her up, Brock is blind to their growing feelings and how Billie's new knowledge could backfire and put their whole arrangement in jeopardy.

At its core, Born Yesterday is a power struggle between the little guy (or lady), the big guy, and government, with truth and knowledge being the key to power. No matter how much Brock beats Billie, either emotionally or physically, she overcomes her subservience to get the better hand. A great analogy for the play manifests in the scene where she continually beats in him in Gin rummy after he taught her to play. The current political climate certainly adds to the script’s appeal as Brock eerily mirrors the fast-talking, fake-looking, catchphrase-spouting caricature dominating the 2016 primary election. In a sense, Verrall issues a call to action for the people to educate themselves in order to make an informed decision, especially when they feel their elected officials are not justly representing their constituents. By the end, Born Yesterday is as much about female empowerment as it is about democracy as Billie literally gets some sense knocked into her and is able to leverage her power to right wrongs and get what she wants and deserves.

Matthew Byron Cassi directs a compelling production chock full of significant, yet often silent, moments that simultaneously give the characters depth and motivation. The set design by Karen Arredondo-Starr stayed faithful to the period with a dark marble façade adorned with art deco architectural details and accented by postmodern furnishing and Kendall Davila’s stunning geometric floor artwork. Always acutely aware of the details, the Classic’s impeccably decorated set was complimented by Diane Malone’s period-appropriate head-to-toe costuming. Rick Malone’s sound design set the mood with Victrola-era harmonies about the nostalgia of romance and the lighting design by Steven Starr set the scene. 

As Harry Brock, Greg Hinojosa is a charismatic womanizer who overcompensates and is quick to anger, but still able to draw sympathy – quite an acting feat. Hayley Burnside gives Billie Dawn life with an unending range or facial expressions and ability to engage an audience throughout an elongated, yet revealing, game of gin. Nick Lawson harnesses the passion and righteousness of Paul Verrall while mastering physical comedy and eloquent speeches. Byrd Bonner admirably portrays the dishonest lawyer with his knack for the language and cadence of period dramas, albeit somewhat forced at times. Chuck Wigginton’s Senator Norvall Hedges makes an accurate impression as a bribeable pushover with his haughty wife played spot-on by Alexandra Montgomery. Gabriel Sanchez portrays a great henchman as Eddie Brock. The hotel staff made up of Catie Carlisle, Ross Avant, Alejandro Pesina, and Bekka Broyles do their best work in their physicality and telling glances. Altogether, the well-rounded cast offers a natural, even, and very entertaining performance.

The technical orchestration and organic acting provided a beautiful pace, allowing The Classic’s production of Born Yesterday to be impactful, engaging, and insightful. Born Yesterday urges the so-called weak and powerless to channel knowledge into a productive and liberating movement to pursue what and who they want to be.


Born Yesterday will run at The Classic Theatre through May 22, 2016 with performances at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit classictheatre.org.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Moms take the field

by Jenni Morin

The mommy wars have come a long way since Kathleen Clark penned Secrets of a Soccer Mom in 2008, but many of the play’s messages bare repeating to keep the gender equality fight on course. Energetic directing and a talented trio of actresses keep the conversation, and the game, going in AtticRep’s production now showing in the Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater at the Tobin Center through April 17.

Maggie Tonra, Anna De Luna, and Georgette Lockwood in
AtticRep's Secrets of a Soccer Mom.
Alison, Lynn, and Nancy gather at their sons’ soccer field for a spirited mother-son scrimmage on a Sunday afternoon. As they fight the boredom of the bleachers, they each reveal how frustrated and lost they feel with the choices they’ve made, yet don’t seem to regret. Alison struggles with infidelity after marrying young and giving up athletic competition at the request of her oppressive husband. Lynn immerses herself in PTA duties, planning class trips, and organizing activities for the kids after giving up a career in social work. Nancy reveals how isolated she feels as an introvert who has suppressed her ambition to be a photographer, wondering if it’s already too late for her to follow her dreams. The women gossip, talk about their marriages, sex, and how they’ve become those scary mothers who yell at their children. Not able to decide if it’s best to let their sons win the match or not, they decide to throw it to make them happy, that is until their competitive nature kicks in and they feel the need to prove to their sons, husbands, coaches, and any onlookers, but especially themselves, that they are capable of achieving goals in more way than one.

As Lynn, Georgette Lockwood employed an expressiveness in both face and body to give her character an unparalleled depth. She presented Lynn with an ease and her reversion to her cursing uninhibited former self felt rather natural. Anna De Luna tackled some very awkward phrasing in the script with grace, while allowing Nancy’s anxiety shine through. Maggie Tonra’s Alison confidently held the stage, admittedly with some of the juiciest moments. Despite some of the seemingly stilted language in the script, the women easily bonded in friendship, albeit a little too conveniently.

Clark’s Secrets of a Soccer Mom may very well feel dated for young mothers even only eight years out. The conversation about motherhood has been rapidly transforming into a wider discussion of gender equality. Unfortunately, Clark focuses on only a specific set of mothers who are financially well off enough to not need to work, dabble in volunteer work, and pursue expensive hobbies, which unfairly paints a picture of bored housewives rather than the majority of mothers who struggle with work-life balance and making ends meet. Even by including diversity in casting, the script doesn’t allow for an alternative storyline since none of the characters reference working mothers, differing backgrounds, or tensions outside of their own personal perspectives. What is most notable, however, is the idea that mothers cease to be individuals, or even women, with their own desires or aspirations when they give birth. Loss of identity is the overarching theme in the script and while absolutely universal, seems to be an issue especially with American women who live in a culture where keeping a child happy is more important than teaching independence or equality. Even as the characters reject the label of “soccer mom,” they embody it. In the end, if parenting is just a guessing game, all the stress seems unnecessary. The most important takeaway should be to encourage women to not surrender their needs or their womanhood to motherhood.

Director Marisela Barrera expertly used movement to keep the action fresh in a stagnant setting. Mike Maria infused the workout-worthy tunes into the soundtrack for a fun and athletic atmosphere, but could have been slightly more subtle with some specials in the lighting design. Many of the scene transitions felt labored and interrupted the momentum of the show. Designed by Martha Penaranda, the set, made up of a grass turf and standard bleachers littered with soccer paraphernalia, created a nice backdrop for her athletic wear costumes. The production design as a whole gave the characters a lift from the stereotypical while providing a playful canvas for a somewhat enlightening conversation.

A lighthearted show, The AtticRep production of Secrets of a Soccer Mom illustrates how experiences and sensibilities can span cultural divides. AtticRep entertains while presenting many issues to mull over concerning women and motherhood.


Secrets of a Soccer Mom runs at the Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater at the Tobin Center through April 17 with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. For more information and to reserve tickets, visit atticrep.org.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Beauty of LaBute

by Jenni Morin

In Neil LaBute’s reasons to be pretty, looks are everything as they end relationships, define friendships and dictate life paths. The Playhouse Cellar Theater production of reasons to be pretty, which runs through April 10, focuses on the language and relationships with a talented cast set against a blank stage.

Written in 2008, reasons to be pretty serves as a precursor to the semi-anonymous commentary proliferating social media where apathetic insults are hurled upon unsuspecting readers and creating a culture disinterested in thinking before speaking – or rather, posting. When Greg unwittingly compares the looks of a new girl at work to those of his girlfriend, Steph, he is over heard by Kent’s wife, Carly, who tells Steph that Greg thinks she is ugly. Greg’s comment hurts Steph so deeply, she ends their four-year relationship. Carly gives Greg the cold shoulder until she needs him to admit Kent is having an affair with the pretty new girl who started the whole thing. Greg, after months of self-reflection, becomes fed up with Kent and his disregard for his wife and obsession with women’s looks. Stuck in dead-end jobs and unfulfilling relationships, each character has a moment where they must decide to move past the superficial nature of their lives and look deeper into what will make them happy.

Director David Rinear creates a beautifully choreographed dance, taking advantage of the open space and moving the actors in a way necessary for the staging, but also to keep the pacing in a play that can sometime feel repetitive as profanity dominates the vocabulary of the characters. Since LaBute’s characters can and do exist anywhere and everywhere, the blank stage of the Cellar’s blackbox space allows for the characters to be exposed, unadorned and everyman. Ryan DeRoos’ set design epitomizes less is more while Megan Reilly’s simple, yet textured lighting design perfectly compliments the blank stage. The sound design by Pat Smith sets the time period with nostalgic alternative popular music of the 2000s, although the abrupt fadeouts after scene transitions feels a bit jarring. The costumes by Sophie Bolles bring the production together, setting the scene in the absence of set pieces.

As Greg, Ty Mylnar taps into the quintessential clueless male, but shows his talent by balancing a deer in headlights looks with quick witted quips, which add a much needed tinge of intelligence and humor to the production. Nathan Thurman takes on the sleazy womanizing Kent who cares more about a company baseball trophy than his relationships. Ashley Greene as Carly  represents the pretty in the title and plays to the character’s ditziness, although sometimes missing the mark on genuine emotions. Laura Michelle Hoadley brings out Steph’s crazy while maintaining her romantic, sometimes pragmatic, sentiments toward her idea of what a relationship should be.

LaBute has earned a reputation as a misanthrope, but his accuracy in how so many millenials speak and think can feel like an unabashed criticism of an entire generation when it’s so far removed from the reality of the traditional theatre patron. But what continues to make reasons to be pretty relevant are the many angles from which it can be approached. For example, while rampant narcissism is still a theme in today’s social media culture, the shift to body shaming and trolling has become the new focus and comments on another’s looks are on full display in this work. In a world where emojis replace words and profanity replaces adjectives, it’s not hard to imagine those in a less than glamorous life with little prospects clinging to fleeting youth and beauty. In the end, it’s refreshing to see a realistic evolution for most of the cast as they finally make decisions to better their lives and leave behind what has stunted their maturity.

While LaBute details an authentic glimpse at an intriguing age group, reasons to be pretty allows the audience to ascertain the subtext and do what theatre is meant to do—hold a mirror up to society. The Cellar Theater provides the perfect venue for reasons to be pretty as it showcases the keen eye of a seasoned director at the helm of a complimentary cast.


Reasons to be pretty runs at The Playhouse Cellar Theater through April 10 with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and on Sundays at 3 p.m. For more information and to reserve tickets, visit theplayhousesa.org.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Creatures of the Night may break you

by Jenni Morin

Creatures of the Night, written and directed by Emily Fitzgerald, challenges the resilience of humanity with an intriguing detective’s mystery. Now playing at The Overtime Theater through March 26, SWALDA’s production provides a brief glimpse into the dark underbelly and psychological warfare crime plays on the fabric of civility.

Creatures of the Night follows Private Investigator Annabelle Valentine and her partner Mike Dandy as they embark on pseudo detective work until Dandy’s old flame, Irene Lerad, comes back in town. Wary of Lerad’s connection to organized crime and her unsavory henchwomen, Valentine takes it upon herself to protect Dandy. The mystery deepens as bodies turn up and Valentine and all those she comes in contact with become entrenched in finding the mastermind criminal behind it all.

True to the playwright’s intent, the clues become obvious in retrospect and the play is a success as a mystery. The soliloquy proves an imperative device throughout the script as Valentine analyzes her situation as well as her own psyche. Her fascination with vampires and darkness serves as a great metaphor for describing how “crime leaks vitality” and the possibilities of the uninhibited mirror those of the immortal. While the “don’t let it break you” mantra at times feels overdramatic, its repetition fortifies the play’s conclusion. One atypical notion that perhaps makes the script more thought provoking, but still feels incongruent and far-reaching, is how evil abandons preying on the weak to systematically break stronger souls and then recruit them for an even more unhinged and dangerously loyal army. This frightening strategy serves as a warning amidst current events, from terrorism recruiting to electing the wrong commander in chief, making the play more relevant than perhaps ever intended. 

As Valentine, Sarah Nixon Hemmi dutifully led the cast and provided the most developed character, although eye contact during the soliloquies would have been more engaging. Jay Overton as Joe conquered a formidable role, while Miguel Di Costanzo as Mike Dandy and especially Laura Epstein as Aurore Clement were steadfast and convincing in their portrayals. Deborah Basham-Burns’ Piper Prudeaux was the most natural, as Michele Wisniewski certainly captured creepy along with Chelsea Robertson’s unexplainable Jessop. Abbey Storch as Adele Dixon, Justin Keown as Lt. Jefferson Thomas, and Cristina Rodrigez as Irene Lerad rounded out the cast.

For her first full-length play, Fitzgerald weaves an interesting tale complete with favorite stock characters of the mystery genre. The lighting was much too bright to evoke a sense of noir, which would have been a welcome technical layer in the production. The lack of intermediary music to cover the scene changes, however, was the most noticeable lost opportunity for foreshadowing, elevating the feeling of suspense, and bridging the scenes. The set by Alex H. Coy IV and Chris Champlin was well-plotted, decorated with detail and gave a framework to the production. Even as the pacing was slower than desirable, the relationships between the characters and the mounting mystery propelled the action to a satisfactory ending.

Fitzgerald’s Creatures of the Night offers an entertaining new twist on the villain and hero dichotomy. Although the Overtime production lacked technical elements and truly gripping characters, it questioned some of the basic perceptions of good and evil in an enjoyable rendition of mystery theatre.


Creatures of the Night plays at The Overtime Theater through March 26 with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays; 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 6; and 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 20. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.theovertimetheater.org.