photo by Tim Fuller
Arlene Chico-Lugo (L) and Keith Contreras as Tania and Pablo Del Valle in "Native Gardens."

My theory is that Arizona Theatre Company's new artistic director David Ivers intends ATC's season-opening “Native Gardens” to be a kind of litmus test.

Charged with pleasing theater audiences in liberal Tucson and conservative Phoenix, Ivers is using this play by Karen Zacarias' dramatizing contemporary cultural conflicts to compare the reactions of these two cities.

But not to worry, just know this is also a zippy production set in a residential Washington DC neighborhood. Directed by Jane Jones with a super-realistic set design by Carey Wong, the jokes come pouring in quick as any Neil Simon show and no thinking is required.

However, for the rumination-inclined...Bill Geisslinger and Robynn Rodriguez are perfectly cast as an older, assertively patrician white couple Frank and Virginia Butley. Opposite them are Arlene Chico-Lugo and Keith Contreras, also perfectly cast as Tania and Pablo Del Valle, a brighter, younger and equally well-educated brown couple who enjoy their more casual lifestyle.

“Native Gardens” is written as a 90-minute non-stop confrontation between neighbors who are separated only by a scrap of chain link fence. All those jokes are the sugar coating for what becomes, essentially, a battlefield of issues regarding race, a history of white domination and the feminist struggle for respect.

Zacarias makes no attempt to plow a middle ground, balancing the opposing needs of both sides to encourage a fertile future of mutual understanding.

Most of the good jokes are made at the expense of the Butleys, portrayed as representing the patronizing establishment, happily sizing up this new couple who buy the nearly identical home next door.

Only that home, so similar in its architecture, has been badly treated through many years of being rented to careless Georgetown University students.

“This is our fixer-upper,” says Pablo right off, making clear he's got the money to get the job done. Pablo is a young-ish lawyer from Chile, hired by an American law firm through its “outreach program.” Pablo's plan is to work so hard and be so successful he will soon become a full partner in the firm.

Meanwhile, the Butleys hear their new neighbors speaking Spanish, see they have brown skin and figure they are Mexicans.

Tania, however, is an American born to a family of early settlers in New Mexico. Generations back, her family became American citizens by default when the border was drawn.

Tania lives this conflicted history, feeling proud to be nearing completion of her PhD in identity politics. She is also pregnant, expecting her baby at any time.

After we meet Bill proudly pruning his formal patio garden full of non-native flowers, we learn he dreams of winning this year's neighborhood trophy for Most Beautful Formal English Garden.

Meanwhile, Tania talks of wanting to bring her barren backyard back to life with lots of different native plants, including native weeds that have an important role in nature's life cycle, letting everything grow not in rows but however it wants.

Soon after, Pablo and Tania innocently discover their property line actually runs down the middle of Bill's lovely, symetetrical flower beds. Somehow over the past many years, Bill's beautification has slowly expanded two feet onto the property of those uncaring college students.

Who knows when it happened. But now the expansion has been discovered and suddenly these proud, brown, indignant new property owners want their land back immediately.

"Native Gardens" runs through Sept. 29, with performances at various times Tuesdays through Sundays in the downtown Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets are $25-$90. For details and reservations, 622-2823, or visit

When:Various times through Sept. 29.

Where: Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.

Cost: $25-$90.

Reservations/information: 622-2823; or

Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

photo by Tim Fuller
Galileo (Joseph McGrath) demonstrates a new invention, the telescope.

Once Copernicus declared the Sun to be the center of our solar system, the entire universe was up for grabs. Along about this same time, the Dutch figured out the optics of magnification and – voila – they introduced the telescope.

Exciting times, indeed.

Now the Rogue Theatre has added the dynamic personality of iconic astronomer Galileo Galilei in producing Bertolt Brecht's dramatization of science vs religion and politics in “Galileo,” using the English translation by Charles Laughton.

We in the audience with cell phones in our laps receive a rich evening of hearty theater led by Joseph McGrath in the title role. 

Looking every bit the towering figure of a man completely confident of his superior intelligence, McGrath follows the scuffling path of insisting Earth revolves around the Sun as his concept grew from being a silly idea worthy of the village idiot to becoming in 1633 a defining confrontation with the Pope's own Eurocentric view.

Just like the Sun itself, the role of Galileo is the center of Berthold Brecht's 2-hour 20-minute play. He is onstage nearly the entire time, circled by a dozen actors playing a robust variety of roles, some serious, some hilarious.

Many of this myriad lot wear eccentric costumes and artfully designed masks with exaggerated noses and other features.

Eventually everyone onstage gets sorted out as being either for or against Galileo and his controversial science. At the time it was a very easy decision, for anyone could see the Sun revolved around the Earth. That was plain as day.

If you think today's corporate executives of the world's factories make a powerful adversary opposing global warming, try going against the Pope in the 17th century when the telescope itself was a new idea and Christian theology was the enforcer for all human behavior.

Cynthia Meier as the Rogue's director keeps all the moving bodies moving as precisely as the celestial bodies themselves while Galileo (as much of a con man as the court politicians, and just as agile) holds center stage with his constant smiling, cajoling, strategizing, advancing, withdrawing and...finally, sadly...accepting that his understanding of how the Sun, Moon and Earth align were too advanced for anyone else living in those times.

In one startling scene, the Pope (John Keeney) insists the Earth could not possibly be revolving around the Sun because God himself created the Pope to be the center of the Universe and, since the Pope rules here on Earth, the Sun, Moon and stars must be revolving around the Pope.

Who could argue with that?

And so, accused of heresy by the Church and facing torture, Galileo agreed he would recant his beliefs. But he also refused to change his mind. Under house arrest for the rest of his life, Galileo wrote extensively on his theories and observations.

Sitting here in the year 2018, it is easy to feel smugly superior to the Pope's insistance on being at the literal center of the universe. Then we remember today's quandry over global warming. Once again, science is on one side and world politics on the other.

Human nature, as it was in the 1630s, is caught in the middle. Truly, the more things change the more they stay the same. Once again trite makes right....

"Galileo" runs through Sept. 23, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, at The Rogue Theatre, 300 E. University Blvd. Tickets are $38. Student rush, with ID, on sale 15 minutes before curtain, $15 when available. For details and reservations, 551-2053, or