photo by Tim Fuller
In a beauty parlor, five feisty females inspire each other to become mariachis, played by
  (from left) Christen Gee Celaya, Marlene Montes, Stephanie Swift Molina, Osiris Cuen, and Alicia Coca.

Feeling more like a street party than a stage play, Arizona Theatre Company has opened “American Mariachi” with a vigorous burst of enthusiasm that steamrolled over the audience on opening night to inspire an instant standing ovation.

Though the dialogue does contain a number of lines in Spanish,  the play's message is always clear – women can be anything they want to be, even mariachis.

One could also say “American Mariachi” is a primer for gringos on how to find the heart of this proudly emotional music that, for many, is the sound of Mexico itself.

During the entire evening Tucson felt like the perfect place to be watching this play: A bi-lingual city that loves to nurture its Hispanic flavors and history. Also appropriate is how all four musicians in the cast got their start as performers playing in the iconic Mariachi Los Changuitos Feos de Tucson.

The fit is so good, I'm betting Old Tucson could mount a production of “American Mariachi” in its cowboy saloon and leave it running all year around.

Christopher Acebo as dirctor at ATC keeps the pacing quick and bright, zipping through 95 minutes of action with no intermission. Cleverly enough, playwright Jose Cruz Gonzalez has worked in a quartet of mariachis – played here by Esteban Dagnino, trumpet, Francisco Javier Molina, violin, Ali Pizarro, vihuela, and Antonio A. Pro, the massive guitarron – as a kind of Greek instrumental chorus. They don't speak, but do add their spirited playing at key moments to give the plot a jolt.

The musicians and the actors work together seamlessly. The music director is Cynthia Reifler Flores. Toward the end, the five female cast members do play their instruments, too.

The story and the acting that's required are all pretty basic. “American Mariachi” is set in the mid-1970s, somewhere in the southwest, where feminism is feeling free to fly.

With such fervor in the air, young Lucha Morales (Christen Celaya) discovers that her mom Amelia (Diana Burbano), who suffers with dementia, suddenly flashes to life whenever she hears a certain mariachi recording.

Instantly Lucha decides to start a mariachi band, even though she doesn't play a musical instrument. Lucha's best friend Hortensia “Boli” Perez, already an ardent feminist, is totally in with the idea. She doesn't play anything, either.

Of course Lucha's father Federico (Danny Bolero), who is a mariachi with a beautiful uniform and plays in restaurants whenever he can, is vehemently opposed to the idea. Only men can play mariachi, he insists. It's tradition.

Most of the story involves Lucha and Boli getting three female friends to join them, to play that song so Lucha can reconnect with her mom. The friends are Isabel Campos (Alicia Coca), Soyla Reyna (Marlene Montes) and Gabby Orozco (Osiris Cuen).

The struggles of getting those friends to join in her band, fighting all the male resistance, learning to play their instruments and savoring their success leads to a triumphant ending that will leave you wanting to leap to your feet, as well.

"American Mariachi" plays through May 30, with performances at various times Tuesdays through Sundays in the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets are $25-$90. For details and reservations, 622-2823,

photo by Ryan Fagan
From left, Glen Coffman, Emily Gates, Carley Elizabeth Preston and Christopher Younggren search for answers in "Time Stands Still" at Live Theatre Workshop.

Live Theatre Workshop goes for the gold with an intense and insightful production of "Time Stands Still" by Donald Margulies. While LTW may be best known for its high-energy comedies, this show is not one of those.

Set against the endless wars across the Middle East, which some American publications feel compelled to cover, playwright Margulies dives deep into exploring questions of whether this violent coverage is essential to an informed society or whether it has become just more entertainment for mass market magazines.

Eva Tessler, no stranger to directing powerful plays on Mexican border issues, takes her estimable skills straight to the desert battles of Iraq, drawing fine performances out of Carley Elizabeth Preston and Christopher Younggren playing two bonded adrenaline junkies hooked on front line reporting from those obscure battle zones that rarely break through American headlines obsessed with Trump and racism.

Also cast are Glen Coffman as Richard the photo editor of an unnamed, though elite, magazine and Emily Gates as his young wife Mandy, whose "simple" interests represent the general public.

Preston's energy drives this production. She plays Sarah, a hard-nosed combat photographer so dedicated to military conflict it wouldn't surprise anyone if she designed her kitchen in a camouflage pattern, because military outposts are where she feels most comfortable.

Matching her torque-jawed attitude with his own determination to survive any battle is Younggren as James, an equally dedicated war correspondent. But he is beginning to suspect there might be more to life than the challenge of surviving these conflicts.

"Time Stands Still" is set in their New York City apartment, which always feels tossed about because each of them is forever dashing off on some suddenly critical assignment.

But this time Sarah has arrived back home badly injured by a roadside bomb that almost turned her into a newspaper obituary. James feels somewhat responsible, prompting his suspicion that maybe the two of them won't be lucky forever.

James is also a movie buff, seeing 1950s science fiction flicks as metaphors for civilian fears fed by the Cold War. He has lots of theories about the crossroads of entertainment and politics.

Some of these theories are shared with Richard, a longtime friend who is helping shepherd a freelance story James wrote, trying to get it into the magazine where Richard works.

The  heart of Margulies' play centers on the discussions these three have. Sarah is a true believer giving extreme value to her pictures of civilian suffering that she risks her life daily to shoot and send back to the States. These are photos of refugee horrors that must be seen.

James has a somewhat more theoretical view, recognizing that her pictures and his stories won't get published unless the magazine editors believe the readers are interested.

Richard, who wears clean clothes to work in an air conditioned New York office every day, knows the gritty stories of his two friends are competing for magazine space with glamour tales of  Hollywood celebrities, hot fashions and the latest new digital devices.

Mandy the innocent one throws everybody's opinions into a tossed hat when she asks why Sarah and James don't drop their cameras and note pads, stop being reporters, and instead do something to actually help the people who are  dying right before their eyes.

Is this coverage important to Americans living comfortable lives -- to justifying the world's most expensive military forces -- or just important to the nameless refugees and victims of selfish violence in lands where this forever war has become a numbing Hell.

And what about the war correspondents? Do they owe any responsibility to the people dying all around? Should they be helping the wounded on both sides --- or are they supposed to stay neutral, like referees in a violent football game?

All four friends have a different answer. All four actors deliver their thoughts with intense conviction. Can they all be right?

Margulies doesn't pick sides, either. Just like it says on Fox News: "We report, you decide."

"Time Stands Still" continues through March 30, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, (also 3 p.m. March 30)  at Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway Blvd. Tickets are $15 Thursdays, $20 all others. For details and reservations, 327-4242, or visit