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The Sweet and Innocent 

Arizona Onstage takes on 'Reefer Madness' and growing up gay in Texas

Had your fill of wholesome entertainment over the holidays? Well, a new year has arrived, and theater producer Kevin Johnson hopes you've got enough of an appetite left to sample his own special kind of fruitcake.

Here's what Johnson is serving up this week, from the test kitchens of his Arizona Onstage Productions:

First, there's Talk of the Town, a Paul Bonin-Rodriguez comedy about a self-described "sissy boy" coming to terms with his sexuality in a small Texas town.

Then, there's a special two-performance fundraiser featuring live music and a screening of a heady 2005 musical film called Reefer Madness, inspired by the famously campy 1936 anti-marijuana movie of the same name. This event is designed to pay off bills from earlier Arizona Onstage shows and help fund the rest of this season.

The fundraiser will follow the general pattern of Arizona Onstage's previous presentations of Song of the South and Jerry Springer: The Musical. Johnson describes it as "a 'joint' effort between singers, comedians and cinema that explores the anti-drug messages that were presented in public meeting places, schools and churches in the 1930s--1950s." The evening opens with Tucsonans To-Ree-Nee Wolf McArdle, Marcus Terrell Smith and Liz Cracchiolo singing songs with hidden alcohol and narcotic allusions performed during Prohibition and beyond; expect a lot of Bessie Smith material. After that, the Tucson troupe Not Burned Out Just Unscrewed will present comedy improvisation inspired by badly acted public-service films like the original Reefer Madness. After intermission, which includes a free-with-admission visit to a brownie bar, comes a screening of the director's cut of Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical on a 35-foot screen with surround sound.

"It's sort of like Grease meets Rocky Horror," says Johnson, who notes that his presentation is intended to be a funny comment on American sociology, not an endorsement of drug use. "There's a lot of high school dancing, and some decapitations musically done. It's a $12 million movie based on a show that ran off-Broadway for two years, and the performances are wonderfully good." The stars include Kristen Bell, Christian Campbell, Neve Campbell and Alan Cumming.

"It never got American distribution, even though it did very well at Sundance. Of course, everybody is stoned there. But it's surprisingly coherent, and they make fun of anti-drug hysteria and drug culture and the movie-musical genre itself. There's a big, huge dream sequence where Mary Lane, the sweet and innocent lead girl, takes one puff and goes into this 15-minute hallucination sequence that's like Busby Berkeley on acid."

Speaking of sweet and innocent, the bigger, longer-running show that Johnson is also launching this weekend is Talk of the Town, in which 15-year-old Johnny Hobson runs into trouble in his small Texas community as he comes to realize that, for him, running like a girl isn't just a matter of being physically awkward. Johnny, without ever using words like "homosexual" or "gay," tells us about figuring himself out while he revels in his obsession with the Judds and works after school at Dairy Queen, serving Belt Busters and Christian Steak Finger Baskets to the local church crowd.

Johnny is a very likable kid, and even his antagonists aren't made out to be monstrous. "It was never meant to be extremely preachy or vengeful," says playwright Paul Bonin-Rodriguez, who himself grew up gay in a small Texas town. "All of that was pulled away, and it's meant to find ironic joy and innocence in an identity that is always thought of as un-innocent.

"I was inspired by this kid I knew when I was in fifth grade. His name was Johnny, and one day, we were out playing kickball, and these really nasty kids started calling him names. He was like Truman Capote, round and blond and blue-eyed, and he ran like a girl. I was effeminate, too, so I didn't have any distance from that. So these kids are calling him names, and finally they call him a cocksucker, and he says, 'Well, that's OK, because you chew your cud.' I cried, because he seemed so innocent, and he just wouldn't take that on.

"There is a certain love for the town in this play, too. I'm glad I maintained a position that could let us all laugh. I've taken this character to far darker places, but this has the joy of youth."

Bonin-Rodriguez, a performance artist and dancer as well as a writer, wrote Talk of the Town 15 years ago for his own use. Later, he wrote two sequels following Johnny into later life. "Each piece was written to stand on its own, but also to make you curious about the rest, and each took on a different theme," he says. On opening weekend, the playwright will participate in a post-show talkback in which he reads a bit from one of the sequels, The Bible Belt and Other Accessories.

He says this will be the first time he's seen the play performed by somebody else. "I performed this myself in repertory for about 10 years, and I'm so looking forward to seeing someone else taking the journey." That someone else is local actor Brandon Kosters, who wrote "My Katrina Diary" for the Tucson Weekly last Feb. 9.

Says director Johnson, "Brandon is one of the most amazing people I've ever met, of any age. When I was his age (18), I was a complete, disordered mess, no focus, no vision. Brandon is volunteering for all these relief agencies, and he's passionate about what he believes in.

"Twenty-seven people auditioned for this role. Out of all the actors who auditioned, he was the only straight actor, but he was the one who was perfect for it. So many came in reading like they were Delta Burke in Designing Women. Brandon is self-sufficient; he's not the most seasoned of actors compared to the others who auditioned, but there's an innocence that's still there in him, and he's exploring and discovering a lot through the text. He's always able to find a connection with something he's gone through."

Johnson himself finds plenty of personal connections in this show. He and Bonin-Rodriguez were friends in Texas, and Johnson was the sole observer at the show's original dress rehearsal. Johnson himself, like Johnny, had family problems when he came out. "This show has let me put some pain to bed, because I realized that people were just doing what they thought was best at the time," he says. "I find so much truth in this play's humor; some of it is funny, and some is sad, and all of it is honest. I hope this opens up conversations between parents and kids."

Bonin-Rodriguez says his primary goal with the play is simpler: "I just think of it as a really fun time for the audience."

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