Love and Comedy

Strong performances sweeten simple 'First Kisses,' while high schoolers deliver physical comedy in 'Improviso!'

First Kisses opened at the Invisible Theatre, appropriately, right around Valentine's Day. Jay D. Hanagan's play is a simple, sweet love story about two people, Mary and John, whose relationship starts in childhood and continues into old age.

What makes this production even sweeter is that it stars a real-life married couple, Harold and Maedell Dixon, mainstays of the Tucson theater scene. It's a treat to watch them age as the characters' love story develops over the course of the play. They're a riot as energetic 11-year-olds in the first scene and equally convincing as frail 70-year-olds in the last.

Indeed, the Dixons' solid, fun performances help redeem a script that at times is a little bland. Playwright Hanagan said that he wanted John and Mary to be Everyman figures. But there is a fine line between making characters Everyman—and Everywoman—and simply creating characters that are generic.

Mary and John are never really developed in depth. Neither has many memorable, concrete character traits—the fact that John was attached to a pet hamster as a kid is about a specific as it gets.

Sure, that's part of the point—they're supposed to be ordinary, relatable figures. But the very smooth, bland nature of Mary and John feels unrealistic. Doesn't even the most "normal" person have something at least a little wacky and unpredictable lurking inside?

Still, if Mary and John feel flatly written, the Dixons make up for it in their performances by selling you on the decades-long attachment between their characters.

No makeup is used either to make the actors more youthful-looking or to age them; the passage of time is conveyed entirely through their acting. Costume designer Maryann Trombino keeps the clothing similarly minimal. We are told that the play covers the years from 1951 to 2012, but the script makes no particular references that place the action in particular eras. Trombino's costumes are suitably simple and evocative of the sweep of time.

The whole of the show takes place in the same location: an old shack "nestled between two properties in a small town." The shack is where Mary and John initially meet as children. Over time, it serves them as a meeting place and a refuge.

Regular IT set designers James Blair and Susan Claassen (also the associate and managing artistic directors of IT, respectively) have created a solid, convincing shed. It handily endures one of the actors kicking the door open, with no wobbling—an impressive feat.

The show is ably directed by Gail Fitzhugh, who keeps everything going smoothly and at a quick pace. She also provides the sound design—clips of love songs throughout the ages that help set the mood during transitions between scenes.

But at the heart of this two-person show is the performance of the main duo. Luckily, Harold and Maedell Dixon really deliver, making this simple love story really work onstage.

If First Kisses gives seasoned theater professionals a chance to shine in a scripted show, student performers at Etcetera get a shot at something more off the wall, in a commedia dell'arte show called Improviso!

Since artistic directors Matt Walley and Angela Horchem took over the reins at Etcetera, the late-night branch of Live Theatre Workshop, they have been presenting what they call devised theater pieces. Emerging out of improvisation and physical theater work, the new plays are developed by their own company, Theatre 3.

In the case of Improviso!, Theatre 3 has been working with students from Catalina Foothills High School to create a play in the bawdy commedia dell'arte tradition. Originating in 16th-century Italy, commedia dell'arte has players using masks, broad physical comedy and stock types.

The cast of five high school students and one University of Arizona student, assisted by Walley and Catalina Foothills theater director Terry Erbe, came up with a classic version of the old art form, though it's infused with shots of contemporary humor. The characters speak of working at Starbucks, for instance, and they dream of founding a yoga/dance studio.

The ensemble created their own masks, which are both creepy and humorous, featuring grotesque exaggerations of human features. The only members who do not wear masks are the two lovers, Flamio (Drake Sherman) and Flaminia (Keyanna Khatiblou). These two provide the show's thin plot. The lovers wish to wed, but cannot until Flaminia's miserly mother, Pantalona (Jacqi Miller), also marries.

Meanwhile, a troupe of would-be comedians played by Gertrude Brighella, Hannah Turner and Eli Renteria continuously tell groan-inducing jokes.

The cast is lively and clearly engaged: they turn cartwheels, do flips, pile on top of each other and give each character a distinctive voice. At one point during the performance I saw, their high-spirited shenanigans accidentally destroyed a piece of the minimal set. During one of the many hurried exits through the doors marked "In" and "Out" in the simple backdrop, an enthusiastic actor ripped away one of the door handles.

It speaks to the spirit of Improviso! that such a moment simply merited a hearty laugh from the audience. Spontaneous mayhem is what such a show is all about.

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