Recipient of the Governor’s Arts Award in 1989
David Saar, founder of the acclaimed Childsplay troupe, is one of the most creative and brilliant playwright-directors to ever work in Phoenix theater.
For more on David and Childsplay, go HERE
JANUARY 2002 “CYRANO” Co-production between Childsplay and ASU’s Herberger College of Theatre.
Excerpt from article by Kyle Lawson, Arizona Republic
Swordfighter extraordinaire, poet and philosopher known throughout Paris as a one-man crusade for truth and beauty—that’s Cyrano de Bergerac. His outrageous courage is surpassed only by his outrageous proboscis—or as some would say his GIGANTIC nose! Cyrano, the classic tale of the ultimate love triangle, will come alive on stage at the Paul V. Galvin Playhouse (ASU Campus) Feb. 15 – March 3, 2002. This is a first-time collaboration between the Herberger College of Fine Arts Department of Theatre and Childsplay.
This new adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano is written by Barry Kornhauser and is suited for young audiences (over 11 years of age). Directed by Childsplay’s David Saar, this production features an all-star cast with Jere Luisi as Cyrano; Debra K. Stevens as the object of his desire, Roxanne; and ASU student Kyle Sorrell as the handsome Christian. The play’s cast dons the costume creations of ASU’s Connie Furr-Solomon and performs in the Baroque literary world as designed by Robert Klinglehoefer.
FEBRUARY, 1999. CHILDSPLAY. THE HIGHEST HEAVEN
Arizona Republic Review by Kyle Lawson
Too often, children’s theater is pablum: nutritious after a fashion but impossibly bland. Or worse, it’s junk food: the recycling of the same imagination-starved fairy tale.
Never at Childsplay. The company would rather stuff its young audiences with fare too sophisticated for its palate than blunt developing taste buds with cloying sweetness.
In The Highest Heaven, a world premiere at the Tempe Performing Arts Center, Jose Cruz Gonzalez, the troupe’s playwright in residence, has created a fable that is as appetizing for adults as it is for young people.
It is a cautionary tale of greed, passion and cruelty, and, at the same time, a magical enchantment that sends the senses soaring along with the monarch butterflies that are the focus of the story.
The settings are abstract, the plot revealed in shifting flashbacks. Director David Saar paces events quickly. The audience must pay attention to keep up, and to the credit of Gonzalez and the Childsplay artists, 2- and 3-year-olds were as raptly attentive at Saturday’s matinee as their older brothers and sisters.
Eavesdropping on the way to the parking lot, it was clear to this critic that everyone “got it.” Saar and his company risk going over the heads of their young audiences, but The Highest Heaven is proof that it is better to fail children at that level than to succeed by condescending to them.
Gonzalez’s play is the story of Huracan, a 12-year-old (Steven Pena) who is separated from his mother (Alejandra Garcia) in one of those forced deportations of aliens that blighted the government’s reaction to the Depression. He finds himself in a Mexican village, where he comes into conflict with the rapacious Dona Elena (Debra K. Stevens) and her toadying sons and nephews (all played by Jon Gentry).
Huracan finds shelter with El Negro (Ellen Benton), who, as it turns out, also has been evicted from America for reasons that the elderly Black hobo refuses to discuss. El Negro has become the protector of a forest reserve where monarch butterflies go every year to mate amid the lush vegetation – a verdant wonderland that Dona Elena wants to clear-cut to increase her already overflowing coffers.
Huracan is like one of the butterflies’ get, trapped in a chrysalis of naivete. With El Negro’s help, he breaks the bonds of childhood but discovers that freedom bears a draconian price tag. There are hard truths to be learned about ecology and economics, decency and friendship. The most painful lesson, and the most liberating, comes in realizing that life’s journey inevitably ends in death.
Gonzalez never belabors the moralizing or the butterfly metaphor, yet, when the monarchs spiral heavenward at the close (an exhilarating bit of stage magic), there are cheers from the audience and an understanding that Huracan has begun the perilous but life-affirming migration to adulthood.
Childsplay audiences have come to take excellent performances for granted, and the quintet of actors in The Highest Heaven does not disappoint. But Stevens’ versatility is exceptional even for this troupe. When last seen, she was the plucky young hero of The Velveteen Rabbit. Here she is a harpy from a child’s darkest nightmare, a chilling, malevolent presence that dominates the play even when off stage.
After more than a decade of dealing with Childsplay audiences, Stevens knows how far to take this. Just when Dona Elena is in danger of seriously frightening young playgoers, the actress does something so foolishly comic that they are startled into laughter. This is children’s theater, and she never forgets it – but at the same time, she never plays her audience for fools.
The same can be said of the company’s designers. The physical production represents state-of-the-art technology, but the effects are never used for cheap effect. Even at its most dazzling, the magic in The Highest Heaven has meaning. Sometimes, that meaning is subtle, but the assumption is: If the younger members of the audience don’t get it, the older ones will explain it.
It is a testimony to Childsplay’s skill at making theater that very little explanation is required.
MARCH, 1999. “Island of the Blue Dolphins.”
Review by Kyle Lawson, Arizona Republic
Island of the Blue Dolphins is crammed with the sort of derring-do that moves boys to the edge of their seats. Girls, too, since the Childsplay production at the Herberger Theater Center features a plucky heroine in place of the usual hero.
The swashbuckling action and rustic humor are complemented by moments of great visual beauty. Waves crash against the shores of a remote northern island. A sailing ship plunges into a storm. Panoramic sunsets transform themselves into basins of stars.
All this pales beside the play’s scenes of violence. Marauding otter hunters massacre the inhabitants of a native village in a stylized, strobe-lighted ballet. Later, a pack of wild dogs surrounds a boy who has no place to run. As the dogs lunge, the lights dim. When they come up, the youth’s body lies crumpled against the rocks.
It is a cruel message. The world is a wondrous, savage place, and children are at its mercy. To some adults in the audience, it seems shockingly grim.
This is where Childsplay separates itself from other children’s troupes. Director David Saar and his ensemble of actors refuse to take the easy route. They challenge their viewers to confront the demons of childhood, in this case, death, feelings of loss and the terror of being alone, and perhaps to learn a lesson or two about dealing with them.
Take the killing of the boy. Playwright Brian Burgess Clark, working from the Newbery Medal-winning book by Scott O’Dell, asks his audiences to look beyond the horror to contrast the boy’s death with the slaughter of his family at the hands of the hunters.
The hunters murdered the natives out of greed and hatred. The dogs killed because their pups were hungry. Is the dogs’ behavior different from that of the tribe, which kills birds and sea creatures to feed and clothe itself?
There is a natural order to things, Clark seems to suggest, even if it is harsh. To survive, children must learn to live in harmony with it. Sophisticated reasoning is required here, but the beauty of it is that the youngsters in Childsplay’s audiences get it. Sometimes, their parents have to help, but that’s the point. Theater, the best theater, starts conversations.
After the massacre, the survivors abandon the island. Eleven-year-old Karana and her young brother are left behind. After the boy’s death, Karana grows to womanhood, with only the ghosts of her ancestors and the island’s animals as companions.
She survives, learning by instinct and trial and error how to bend the elements and the wildlife to her will. She befriends a wild dog and, later, a Russian girl who comes to the island with other hunters. Slowly, she purges herself of her fears and bitterness, and comes to accept the world that God has given her. When she is rescued and taken to a distant mission station, she realizes that her experiences have made her strong. She has taken responsibility for her life.
Alejandra Garcia, an actress of Mexican descent, navigates this journey with charm and considerable skill. Smart, feisty, yet fearful and vulnerable, her final triumph is sweet, especially for the girls in the audience who rarely see this kind of role model on stage.
The remainder of the Childsplay ensemble play numerous roles. All are good, but Debra K. Stevens’ Russian girl is a standout, along with Jon Gentry’s and D. Scott Withers’ comic sailors.
The real stars here are the production’s designers. Rebecca Akins’ costumes, made entirely from feathers and natural fibers, are stunning, as is Paul Black’s atmospheric lighting, with its swirling patterns that help audiences track the passing years. Gro Johre contributes another of her imaginative scenic designs, evoking wave-eroded island ledges, windswept promontories and smoky, incense-filled churches. Frances Cohen, artistic director of Center Dance Ensemble, makes a notable Childsplay debut with several abstract ballets inspired by native dances.
Like all Childsplay productions, Island of the Blue Dolphins improves as children and parents discuss it in the car on the way home and over the breakfast table the next morning. In the theater, it provokes wonder, laughter and – fair warning – moments of genuine fright. It is afterward, with the aid of recollection, that one realizes it also has shed a little light on a dark world.