Growing Up Absurd

If there's anything wrong with Steven Dietz's plays, it's that they're so complex that audiences rarely agree on what they're about. This isn't a bad thing. In a town where theater companies repeatedly haul out Blithe Spirit and where any road company of Cats is guaranteed a sellout, a production of anything thought-provoking is something to cheer about.

And Dietz certainly does get produced here. In the past four years alone, five of his shows have been presented by local Equity companies; only Shakespeare gets staged more often in Phoenix. This month, two of Dietz's plays--Still Life With Iris and Rocket Man--are being presented in repertory by two different professional theaters, a distinction that no other playwright--not even the Bard--can claim.

Whether Deitz is writing for kids or adults, his theater is oblique and full of dark humor. In Still Life With Iris, a production of professional children's theater Childsplay, a young girl takes off in search of her past and ends up learning--among other things--that it's best not to trust anyone completely. And Rocket Man, commissioned specially for Arizona Theatre Company, concerns a middle-aged man who--when he isn't cracking jokes--is plotting his exit from this world and on, he hopes, to the next. The plays are sharing center stage at the Herberger, where Iris plays afternoons and Rocket Man plays evenings. And while one is a kid's comedy full of magic tricks and silly characters and the other a cynical, seriocomic look at midlife crisis, each is appealing as adult fare for audiences who like a well-staged, contemplative comedy.

"I think the line between adults' and children's theater deserves to be blurred," says Dietz. "Otherwise, we're keeping audiences from seeing stories that relate to their lives." Both Dietz and the two companies producing his work this month hope to broaden their subscriber base by appealing to the other's audience.

"Regardless of your age, there are beneficial messages about getting past the barriers of life in both these plays," he says.

Still, it doesn't seem likely that parents will be dragging their kids to see Rocket Man, which deals with some serious issues and depicts grown-ups as fallible and--in a couple of cases--certifiably insane. There's a lot of talk about spaceships and parallel universes, but these are mostly meant as observations on mortality and the self-imposed boundaries of our lives--what Dietz calls "a defining feature in my work and my world view."

This sort of vaguely mystical, sardonic storytelling marks the best of this much-lauded playwright's work. In Rocket Man, Donny is a guy who's on either side of the same identity crisis: In Act One, he's a man who's never gotten around to doing his life work; in Act Two, he's a man who's abandoned it. In the end, we leave with the sense that no matter what we accomplish in life, we'll still end up at the same homely little place.

Rocket Man's great huzzah, which I won't reveal here, is so artfully handled that audiences don't always catch it when it's revealed--or whether it's happened at all. "There are a lot of different theories about where Donny goes at the end of Act One," Dietz admits. "I like to wander around at intermission and listen to people talk about what's going on with this guy up onstage. There's always quite a continuum of opinion."

Audiences may not agree with where Dietz's hero has blasted off to, but one thing's clear: By the top of Act Two, the playwright is telling us--in sly language and with carefully plotted scenes--that life is what you make it. You can travel to another galaxy and be handed everything you want, but life will still suck if you let it.

Dietz is sugarcoating a similar message for kids. In Still Life With Iris, the lead character is looking for the past that she's forgotten, and--like her counterpart in Rocket Man--ends up in a present that looks like what we all claim we want. She's surrounded by goodies, but bemoans the loss of the moon. This may be a kids' play, but it's full of references to people who aren't good enough (they end up in the "Tunnel of the Unwanted") and plenty of dark satire. Two of the characters (played brilliantly by D. Scott Withers and former Wallace and Ladmo regular Cathy Dresbach) are wealthy eccentrics who own the best of everything; they're known as the Goods. Their employees are unworthy people with names like Mr. Otherguy and Mr. Himtoo, and all the other characters in the play live to serve "the greater Goods"--raising the moon and sun, replacing the leaves on the trees--though they don't seem to know it. All this shrewd social commentary is cloaked in silliness, but Iris is still a dark, surprisingly adult comedy.

Childsplay's stock company provides its usual witty, sharp-edged performances, following Katie McFadzen's saucy, eye-rolling lead as the title character. This time out, the cast does double duty as crack magicians, performing endless acts of sleight of hand while reading their lines. (Each of the denizens of Iris' hometown world, Nocturno, performs a different task--painting flowers, bottling thunder--and each chore is portrayed as a different magic trick.)

Rocket Man is competently acted (with standout performances by young Carol Roscoe as Donny's daughter and Lauren Tewes, who only vaguely resembles Julie McCoy, the chipper cruise director she played on The Love Boat for eight years), and both plays are given big, splashy productions. Iris is especially handsome, with dazzling special effects and elaborate, animated set pieces. (At one point, Iris announces that she's forgotten who she is, and the entire town in which she's standing vanishes into the flies.) Rocket Man's set is simpler, but no less impressive: During the course of Act One, the stage is slowly cleared away; later, it blows apart and is reassembled before our eyes.

In their simplest forms, both Rocket Man and Still Life With Iris are morality plays that promote that old saw about grabbing life and running with it. But thanks to Dietz's dense, provocative storytelling style, there's something more here. What appears to be a whimsical kids' play includes commentary about the evils of materialism, and Dietz's latest adult comedy is peopled with misfits who are slaves to their machines and who talk a lot about death. "Whether you're a kid just starting your life or someone contemplating midlife issues, there's something we have in common," Dietz says. "None of us will end up doing what we set out to do."

Arizona Theater Company's production of Rocket Man continues through Saturday, April 25; Childsplay's Still Life With Iris continues through Friday, April 24. Both are performed at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.