"BLACK LINEN" IS A CRAFTY WHO-DUN-IT

Back in the day when TV only came in two colors and three channels, evening programming was filled with all manner of murder mysteries from Ellery Queen and all that bunch.

Local playwright John Vornholt remembers those times so fondly he reached back 30 years for one of his own scripts, “Black Linen,” which the very new Tucson Alliance of Dramatic Artists opened last weekend in the far eastside APCOT theater, on Tanque Verde Road at the intersection with Bear Canyon Road.

The intrigue of psychic powers – who has them and who doesn’t – stirs at the center of this shadowy case clearly presented by four experienced Tucson actors. Vornholt loves creating deep suspense.

Happiness for him would be getting to stir the pot of those three witches in “Macbeth.” Vornholt believes it's all about the flavors (bubbling over with toil and trouble), not so much about the ingredients (eye of newt, etc.)

It is no surprise the flavors in “Black Linen” are as distinctive as an Orange Julius, and with ingredients just as difficult to identify.

Denise Blum defines duplicity playing Clare, a shadowy figure known for her psychic powers. She lives alone with her cranky housekeeper Harriett (Sydney Flynn), occasionally entertaining police officers who have only random clues about one murder or another.

Her psychic world is very private and she intends to keep it that way. Well, except for young Beverly (Amy Scully), a protege with some natural psychic powers Claire is helping to develop.

Providing an elaborate backstory, Clare insists she wants to retire from the professional psychic game. She's tired of all the police department procedures, being ignored and then being called in only when the department has no idea what to do next.

Clare wants Beverly to take over Clare's post. As a kind of graduation test she hands Beverly a swatch of black linen taken from a baby's blanket – a dead baby.

Beverly puts the cloth to her cheek...and instantly feels overwhelmed with visions of violence.

That's about the time Robert (Boz Lomasney) comes on, introduced as a detective who has some questions and a request of Clare.

Now it is up to this cast to make real the mystery of unseen powers. The chemistry between Blum and Scully is convincing as first one, then the other seems to be in charge. Their weapons are invisible yet we can feel the impact of their mental blows.

As this conflict develops it also turns out that Harriett the housekeeper and Robert the detective are not exactly what they seemed, either.

Vornholt has constructed his play so the ending is open to interpretation. After each performance, Sheldon Metz the director leads an audience discussion on different impressions of exactly what the ending has implied.

The ending doesn't change, it is always the same every evening. But the particular clues each person has picked up during the performance will affect how the final resolution is interpreted.

"Black Linen" runs through May 29, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, at APCOT Theatre, 8892 W. Tanque Verde Road at Bear Canyon Road.

Tickets are $18 general admission, $15 students and seniors, free for active duty military. For tickets, 1-800-838-3006, brownpapertickets.com







INTENSE "BAD JEWS" HAS BITE
photo by Patrick McArdle

Living through more family conflict are (from L) Shira Maaas, Jeremy Vega and Beth May.

Thanks to that Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” we all know how Jewish people feel about tradition. Apparently, today's generation hasn't embraced the old ways quite so warmly.

Probably that's typical of young people world-wide, but playwright Joshua Harmon brings the point home with a vicious smack in his 90-minute pile driver on family values, “Bad Jews.”

Kevin Johnson as director has filled his quartet of players with a relentless anger that practically puts this production into the punk-rock theater category.

There's no music being played, but everybody is shouting at everybody else like thrash metal guitarists, shredding viewpoints and personalities along the way.

Shira Maas is out front as Vassar student Daphna Feygenbaum, a brilliant young woman enraptured with her Jewish roots. So much so that she wants to move to Israel, study with a vegan female rabbi and join the military.

That might sound like satire, but the full ensemble here is deadly serious about everything that's happening on stage. Daphna was christened Diana but has also taken her traditional Jewish name as an important part of her transformation.

As the play opens, their beloved grandfather Poppy has died and after the funeral Daphna is staying with her wealthy cousin Jonah (Luka Vonier) whose parents have given him this Manhattan apartment with its view of the Hudson River. Jonah is so used to being rich he doesn't think much about this gift.

Daphna, however, can't forget it.

Soon to arrive are Jonah's older brother Liam (Jeremy Vega) and Liam's blond gentile girlfriend Melody (Beth May) who majored in opera.

Liam has no interest in being a good Jew. He'd rather not be any kind of Jew. Just being a good person is difficult enough. And anyway, traditional Japanese culture is much more interesting.

Melody seems to think Judaism is something like life on another planet. Just like the Earth kids in “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” Melody hopes that if she is just nice to these three cousins from a different world, everything will be just fine.

It isn't, of course.

All four actors pour themselves into their roles, maintaining a tight ensemble energy that burns its way through the comedy moments meant to lighten the mental load. There is some laughter, but the agitation is just more powerful than the humor.

Then we realize what's at stake is the inheritance of Poppy's gold “chai” on a gold chain to represent the Hebrew symbol for “life.” This medallion is especially powerful because Poppy kept the medallion hidden under his tongue when he was a prisoner in the Holocaust death camps.

That literally was Poppy's life, and now Daphna believes she deserves to have this chai passed on to her because her Jewish faith is the strongest.

However, Liam believes Poppy wanted the medallion to be Liam's, and he is very much in love with Melody. Will she be the one to receive this treasure as an engagement ring?

While a good bit of the play is taken up with establishing the four conflicted personalities, particularly the rabid rivalry between Daphna and Liam. By the time we get to the final 30 minutes, it feels like they are all trying to douse the fire of disagreement by pouring on more gasoline.

“Bad Jews” runs through May 22 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, in the Cabaret Space at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets are $27.50, with discounts available.

For details and reservations, 882-6574 or visit arizonaonstage.org