In many ways, it was Childsplay’s “Still Life With Iris,” enjoyed during a Desert View Learning Center field trip to the Herberger Theater Center more than a decade ago, that sparked my love for local theater. Its cast included D. Scott Withers, who’s been acting with Childsplay for more than three decades now — in shows like “BFG,” “The Yellow Boat,” and “A Year With Frog and Toad.” Also last season’s “The Color of Stars,” written by Dwayne Hartford.
Withers has often shared the stage with Dwayne Hartford and Jon Gentry, also with Childsplay, while in acting mode. But last night the trio sat in a row with other actors who’d just given the first performance of “Big Dreams,” a play Withers says he’s been working on for eight or nine years now. It’s the tale of several women consumed by beauty pageant dreams, and the men whose attitudes and actions seriously rain on their parades. There’s plenty of self-sabotage as well.
“Big Dreams” is being performed twice today as part of the Hormel New Works Festival at Phoenix Theatre. Withers wowed Phoenix Theatre audiences with his Edna gig for their production of “Hairspray” — in which he looked like a vision of pageant lovliness on a larger than life scale — and reprised the role for “Hairspray” at Arkansas Repertory Theatre in Little Rock. Gentry has performed with Phoenix Theatre as well – rocking the role of Max (opposite Toby Yatso as Leo) in “The Producers.”
The cast for Withers’ “Big Dreams,” which Hartford directs, includes Trisha Ditsworth (Shanda Drexler), Andrea Morales (Mimi Rodriguez), Adrian Hernandes (Blake Portia), Jon Gentry (Mayor Biggs) and Cathy Dresbach (Penny Lou/Louella). Tiffany Owens is stage manager, Cody Goulder serves as dramaturge and Jayson Morrison is the dramaturge intern. Their work happens behind the scenes, but that doesn’t diminish its importance.
Folks who stayed after Friday night’s premiere of “Big Dreams” for a post-show talkback with the cast and creative team had the opportunity to share feedback about the show, agreeing it was best described as a “dramedy.” It’s filled with fabulous one-liners that routinely elicited big belly laughs from the crowd, but also tackles serious themes including identity, hypocrisy, prejudice and more. Finding the perfect balance may take a tad more finessing.
But that’s the beauty of participating in something like the Hormel New Works Festival. Playwrights whose works are chosen for the festival know they’re entering what Robert Kolby Harper, associate artistic director for Phoenix Theatre, dubs one of the “most vulnerable” situations an artist can experience — presenting work in progress before peers and audiences, and staying open to a myriad of musings.
The Hormel New Works Festival continues this weekend, so you’ve got plenty of time to jump into the fray. When last I checked, tickets were still available for today’s 5pm and 8pm performances of Withers’ “Big Dreams.” José Zárate’s “Smugglers” is also being performed at 5pm, and there’s a free “2nd draft reading” of Pasha Yamotahari’s “I Am Van Gogh” that’s on my schedule for 2pm. The “24 Hour Theatre Project” happens this weekend as well.
Note: You can learn more about the Hormel New Works Festival at www.phoenixtheatre.com. “Big Dreams” contains mature language, and plenty of it, so consider yourself warned before deciding to take under-18 types to see the show.
Coming up: Pondering paper, Big musical meets small stage, A superhero tale