REVIEW: "Tigers Be Still" - Chance Theater, Anaheim
"...Courage Does Not Always Roar!"
There’s something funny going on at Chance Theater…and, also something sweet. Spring has only just begun, but it’s hard to imagine things getting much more honeycombed than they already are with this wonderfully appealing domestic dramedy, currently playing on the Fyda-Mar Stage through June 2nd.
I’m referring to "Tigers Be Still,” Kim Rosenstock’s quirky little 90-minute curtain raiser, which plays like a cross between a Seinfeld episode and the off-kilter dysfunction of Showtime's hit show, “Shameless.” Actually, it’s times like these that a theater critic lives for. I felt privileged simply being in the same room with some really amazing actors.
Thrust into the vein of contemporary plays about semi-dorky people struggling to get their acts together, Ms. Rosenstock's dysfunctional characters make for an entertaining slice of modern life. But not without amazing insight from Director Marya Mazor’s sensitive script-wrangling, as well as the canny work of a smart, zippy, scintillating cast that keeps this charming but oh-so-delicate play on track.
The show is about two hopelessly depressed families with all too familiar maladies — unhappy, unorthodox parents and miserable, misguided children — but the playwright’s idiosyncratic plot devices and twee homiletics invites us to examine all this suburban angst with fresh eyes. The oddball characters are so commiserative, and played with such tender understanding, it’s hard to resist her compelling story — even when she throws a runaway tiger into the goofy mix of situational realism and total flapdoodle. Clearly, Rosenstock is a playwright to keep an eye on, and not just for her wickedly effective sense of humor. Her depiction of everyday absurdities in "Tigers…" has a discomforting ring of truth.
Sherry, the off-beat, charmingly geeky art teacher who is the central character in Kim Rosenstock's "Tigers Be Still," certainly has her hands full. Played with endearing naivete by Piper Power (“Tribes,” “The Gut Girls,” "Deadpool The Musical: Beauty and the Beast Gaston Parody"), and self-proclaimed as raised on “sunshine and spam,” she rouses herself from a numbing depression and manages to roll off the couch when she lands a job teaching an art class, while also personally mentoring the middle school principal’s own troubled son. Now Sherry hops around the house like a baby bird noisily greeting the rosy dawn, chirpily urging her agoraphobic mother to also get out of bed, and her jilted, heavy-drinking sister to give up the sofa.
The mother of this pointedly piteous household stays out of sight in an upstairs bedroom, embarrassed by a significant weight gain and unwilling to be seen, even by her own daughters, let alone the audience. She even phones them to talk.
We do see quite a lot of Sherry’s gelastic but entertaining sister, Grace (Erica Farnsworth – “Bundle of Trouble,” “The Miss Firecracker Contest,” “Our Town”) – campy, but screamingly funny, and who has made a nest of the Kleenex-stuffed couch and a sippy bottle out of her Jack Daniel’s. In between raids on her former fiance’s apartment to steal his prized possessions, including his Chihuahuas, she devours chocolate, curls up under an afghan while warbling along to Bette Midler’s “The Rose,” and obsessively watches “Top Gun” over and over, focusing on the moment when the song “You Take My Breath Away” is played. For further revenge, she sleeps with Mr. Cooper, their 75-year-old mailman. But even as she romps in the comic absurdity of Grace’s flamboyant flourishes, Ms. Farnsworth makes us acutely aware of the deep hurt that fuels her character’s over-the-top inner rage.
Joseph, the uncomplaining, starchy school principal, portrayed with gentle authority by Steven Biggs (“Waiting for Godot,” “Twelfth Night,” “The Music Man”), and mourning over his wife's death, happens to be the old flame of Sherry’s now shut-in mother. Maybe it’s just me, but that seems very convenient. At any rate, Joseph can’t seem to get a civil word out of his sullen teenage son, Zack (Joseph Bricker, “Argonautika,” “Under the Gaslight,” “Minneapolis/St. Paul”), who spends his free time on the floor of his dead mother’s shoe closet.
To top it off, a tiger has escaped from the local zoo, setting the entire town on 24-hour alert — or at least the middle-school principal and his rifle. He’s not in the best of moods – and in dire need of being stilled.
That all of this despair is rendered in a consistently amusing manner is a testament to the burgeoning talents of this first-rate cast ensemble, who mines the rich material for all it’s worth. With a refreshingly genuine sensitivity and undeniable chemistry to spare, they make an irresistible group of characters, catching you totally off-guard. You may never see it coming or know what hits you, and that’s partly why it’s such a pleasure to behold. Watching these thespians hone their razor-sharp, bitingly funny craft is one beautiful thrill ride.
Even from the play's opening, in which Sherry awkwardly but charmingly delivers a karaoke rendition of "Holiday," to its hopeful final moments, it reveals the playwright's knack for effectively blending humor and pathos. There is a remarkable absence of cynicism in the play, demonstrating both a high level of skill and a large amount of compassion for the characters.
Mr. Biggs, as Joseph, is the adult in the room, chastising Sherry for a poor decision in going on a field trip with a tiger on the loose. Mr. Biggs also nails a scene perfectly where he is on the phone, trying to cancel a magazine subscription for his late wife. I’ve had similar experiences, but without the comedic twists.
Sherry strikes us at first as a somewhat self-contradictory character. A trained art therapist, she is a certified “care giver,” one whose professional concern is directed toward others. And yet, for some six months, she lay passively in her bed, wrapped up in her own misery, oblivious to everyone but herself. Now that she’s out of bed, she seems to be trying to do penance for that spell of solipsism by spending all her energy in the service of others: caring for her mother and sister, teaching her students, helping Zack to get over his guilt and grief, patching up the long-broken romance between Wanda and Joseph.
“I ended up at home with nowhere to go and nothing to do.” In other words, her loss of caring connection, rather than excessive self-pity led to her months of inaction. Only the materialization of a job helping others had propelled her back into normal life. So the beauty that Zack sees is an almost saintly quality.
The bizarre, bittersweet therapy sessions in which Sherry attempts to get some response from the uncommunicative Zach are clever, masterful comic dialogue that’s half-light between pathos and farce. Think of that improbable tiger as a handy metaphor for the repressed longings of these exasperated characters to get on with their lives — if only they could find the energy to crawl out of the bed, or rather, the sofa…or even the closet, where they have taken refuge from their individual miseries.
Grace—on the other hand—is Sherry’s antithesis. Caught up in self-pity, obsessed with a failed romance, constantly throwing insults toward her sister— all of this represents the archetypal victim, using her sense of humor as a means of survival, but always self-deprecating, always mordant. She rejects help because she needs to hang on to the remnants of what she has lost: her relationship with Troy. Why she should want to do so is something of a mystery, since he seems to have been both boorish and fickle. Boorish to the point that on their fourth “anniversary,” he even gave her a book called, “Everyone Poops.”
In the midst of planning their wedding, she caught him “making out” with his podiatrist at Applebee’s. But Grace is a clinger. She adheres to what’s lost by stealing Troy’s stuff and by endlessly rewatching Top Gun, which reminds her of her days with Troy. She drinks to obliterate her unhappiness, while at the same time surrounding herself with Troy’s belongings to keep the unhappiness alive and tangible.
Zack sees in Sherry a kind of Oedipal temptation. She is several years older than he, and looks like his deceased mother. He slips one of his mother’s shoes on her foot, like Prince Charming with Cinderella. And then tries to kiss her. And yet, despite Sherry’s virtual declaration that there’s no there in a relationship, Zack seems to fall in love with her anyway. But Sherry wisely rejects Zack so that he can move on to a new life, where he can no longer be in his mother’s shadow. And when he finally confronts the tiger at the pool, he meets his demons head on, but rather than attacking them violently, he simply allows them to walk away, to vanish into the surrounding woods. Finally he can board the bus that will take him to a future, “honeycombed” with possibilities, and escape from his troubled past.
Even Grace seems to find her rainbow. Standing in front of the couch surrounded by bags filled with stuff, she appears to be moving on. Sherry instructs her to “say each item out loud like it’s a butterfly that you’re releasing back into nature.” The items are the various possessions belonging to Troy that she has filched over the past month. As she proceeds through the list of stolen goods, her recitation becomes almost liturgical, the litany of a brokenhearted woman ritually healing herself. Only the karaoke machine will retain its place by the couch. With bags slung over her shoulder, Grace heads out the door to return the stolen items, like some warped version of Santa Claus.
While Grace is unburdening herself, Zack comes on stage to tell us the story of his “escape.” Grabbing a suitcase, a box of cookies, and his father’s rifle, he made it as far as the town pond—the site of Sherry’s misguided field trip. As he stood wondering if he had the courage to continue his journey, he heard a growling behind him—the escaped tiger!
As he was about to shoot the beast, he hesitated, seeing in the animal’s eyes a plea to be killed, the mute appeal of a “sad, broken” creature who has given up on life. At that moment, Zack decided not to shoot. Instead, “for him, I choose life.” The tiger walks away, Zack accidentally drops the rifle, discharging it, breaking his spell of indecision, and so, begins his escape.
In the final scene of the play, Principal Moore comes to Sherry’s house for a therapy session of his own. Joseph climbs the stairs to Wanda’s room as the song “Norwegian Wood” plays—evoking Joseph and Wanda’s first intimate encounter on the floor of her teenage bedroom. Sherry ends the play by informing us, “This is the story of how my mother got out of bed.”
The show is brilliantly directed by Marya Mazor. The set (designed by Bradley Kaye), a symbolized home made up of large popsicle sticks and a light scattering of furniture serves as basically the home interior, a classroom, the CVS and Walgreens drugstores where Zack works, the principal’s office, and a closet full of shoes. Lighting Design is by Jeff Brewer; Sound Design is by Rebecca Kessin. Costumes inspired by Marisa Melideo, and Props created and supervised by Megan Hill. Executive Producers are the family of Mary Kay Fyda-Mar, with Season Producers, Bette and Wylie Aitken. Associate Producer is Laurie Smits Staude; Dramaturg is Madi Lang-Ree, and Stage Manager is Wade Williamson.
“Tigers Be Still,” now playing at Chance Theater in Anaheim through June 2nd, is a gamesome play considered to be a dark comedy, but ironically also manages to be charming, optimistic, and downright funny. This show has the Highest Recommendation! Performance times include Thursday, May 16th at 7:30pm. Normal performance times are Fridays at 7:45pm (May 17th – Free Wine Tasting; May 24th – Free Beer Tasting), Saturdays at 2:45pm and 7:45pm, and Sunday matinees at 2:45pm. Tickets may be purchased at https://chancetheater.com/
The Show Report
Photos by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio