Stray Cat Struts

Perhaps the only thing more unusual than producing a program about 9-year-olds with nothing to live for is having actual fourth graders show up to audition for parts in the show.

"I was floored," says Ron May, who's directing The Fourth Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide for Stray Cat Theatre. "Given the content of this script, we were surprised parents would let their kids audition. I actually had parents saying to me, 'Yeah, we read the play and we know it's about a boy who kills himself. When can my kid audition?' Amazing."

May, who says he's "not the parent type," decided to cast adults in the kiddy roles. "I knew I'd wind up trying to explain to a real-life fourth grader with no perspective on suicide why some kid would kill himself and leave behind a script about his tormented life as a suicide note. I wasn't sure I could do that."

May is more confident that The Fourth Graders, which he calls "a sort of very dark Peanuts cartoon with a message," will attract an audience. What seems more likely is that the other half of the bill, a show about Nicky and Paris Hilton titled Nicky Goes Goth that's running in repertory with The Fourth Graders, will draw the crowds. The Hilton sisters are hot these days, and anything with "goth" in the title ought to appeal to the young, fringy element that tends to flock to Stray Cat shows.

It won't hurt that the role of Paris Hilton is played by someone May refers to as "a rather zaftig gentleman named Jeffrey Middleton. We kept his face out of all the promo shots because, well, he's a huge presence as it is."

Stunt casting is hardly necessary in a show about a pair of real-life heiresses who tangle with a teenage Satan worshiper. "The show is about a lot more than bitch fights between the Hilton sisters," says May of Elizabeth Meriwether's lighthearted script. "It's a romantic, absurdist comedy that comments on the battle between love and money."

Nicky was a hit at last year's New York City Fringe Festival, and May, who's hired director Lindsey Harman to helm this production, hopes it'll also catch on here. "We're only the third company to do Nicky Goes Goth," he reports, "and we're working with an almost entirely new group of actors -- people who haven't worked with us before. But there's really no sense of risk with either of these shows, because we've got the Hilton sisters, and a couple of great scripts, and casts that are just really wonderful."

Wonderful and young. May reports that as part of the rehearsal process for The Fourth Graders, he asked his cast to bring home movies of themselves in fourth-grade talent shows and school pageants. "I was surprised at how many of the cast had actually appeared in fourth-grade school plays," May says with a laugh. "But then we realized that they were all on VHS, and it took us forever to find someone who actually still owned a VCR so we could watch them."

Ah, youth.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela