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A Decade of Plays 

The departing arts editor and theater critic on productions that left lasting impressions

Two weeks from now, if all goes according to plan, the Tucson Weekly will publish my final review as the paper's theater critic and arts editor.

Let me make this clear: I haven't been fired, and I'm not quitting in disgust. It's just that I've been contributing to the Weekly for 10 years, during much of which I've reviewed one to three plays in almost every issue, and after all this time, I want my weekends back.

So there are no hard feelings, and I'll still fill in for editor Jimmy Boegle when he goes on vacation this fall, and I may contribute an occasional piece in the future. But after this month, someone else will be pontificating in this space every week.

I have a couple of time-sensitive articles to write for the next two issues, so right now, during this week's theater lull, I'll bid you a premature farewell with a few thoughts on what most impressed me on Tucson's stages during this decade.

Oddly enough, the moments I remember most distinctly were the silences. In 2001, for example, during Arizona Theatre Company's production of Wit, directed by Samantha K. Wyer, the main character, dying of cancer, suspended her brainy logorrheic monologue to sink into her hospital bed while a nurse slowly, tenderly washed her hands. Those few seconds said almost as much about human connection as the rest of the script.

Then in ATC's 2005 production of Macbeth, directed by Stephen Wrentmore, there was that long, harrowing silence when Macduff was informed of his family's murder. It expressed the character's shock and pain more effectively than any amount of wailing. (A different director used the same effect in the recent Broadway production of Macbeth featuring Patrick Stewart.)

In 2003, Arizona Repertory Theatre's production of Metamorphoses, directed by Harold Dixon, was regularly punctuated with arresting silences. Here's a catalog of them from my review: "There's the speechless horror of Midas (Nat Cassidy), the cigar-chomping, platitude-spouting mogul with the golden touch, who has inadvertently turned his precious daughter into precious metal; the graceful way Alcyone (Molly Jasper), running in slow motion to her drowned husband, arcs one arm and then the other behind her, drawing her wrists to the small of her back to signify the wings of the seabird she has become; Cinyras (Matt Bailey) furiously attempting to drown his daughter, Myrrha (Lisa Sproul), upon learning that she is the woman who has blindfolded and seduced him; and the devastating image, repeated again and again, of Orpheus (Cassidy) turning to look at his beloved Eurydice (Lezlee Benninger), and the god Hermes (Noah Todd) regretfully pulling her back to Hades as the lovers reach out to each other."

This is the poetry of stillness and mute movement.

Probably the performer who made the greatest impression on me in production after production while hardly saying a word was onetime student Shawna Cormier, whom I once described as "the best listener and reactor the UA has had onstage in a long time." Sometimes fragile, sometimes impish, Cormier brought tremendous character to such plays as Henry IV and Midwives.

Of course, moments involving sound have also stuck with me, including some musical numbers. And I say this as someone who is usually dissatisfied with musicals: The classics tend to be dramatically naïve; the new ones tend to have forgettable music; and all of them tend to be produced by people who are better at conveying spectacle than character.

OK, those generalizations are unfair, and if you browse my archives, you'll see that I have actually praised several local musical productions. But what comes to mind right now is hardly standard Broadway fare.

Somehow, I've never shaken the memory of David Morden changing out of a blond wig, stiletto heels and silver evening gown into a French workman's overalls as he sang Kurt Weill's mawkish yet heartbreaking cabaret song "Je ne t'aime pas." What could have been surreal or simply bizarre actually came across with great emotional sincerity. (This was part of a musical sequence that preceded the Rogue Theatre's production of Jean Genet's The Maids; you should always arrive early for Rogue's pre-performance musical sequences, masterminded by Harlan Hokin.)

And I still get a little choked up when I think about William Finn's Elegies—Looking Up, essentially a staged song cycle presented by Arizona Onstage Productions in 2006. As I explained in my review, "Each song is a tender remembrance of people lost to us, and yet each song is a celebration of the joy and love those people gave us. ... The singers tend to hold a mark on stage, but they are living each song and its backstory within them as they perform, and the effect is always very real and sometimes unbearably touching. (Director Kevin) Johnson has done a tremendous job of drawing this out of his uniformly talented cast."

Elegies and everything else I've described came as surprises, transcending my expectations in very subtle ways. The possibility, though not the certainty, of such moments exists with almost every show. That possibility has drawn me back to the theater week after week all these years—and it should draw you back in the years to come.

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