photo by Tim Fuller

Ryan Parker Knox as Captain Alvarado (L) and Christopher Johnson as Esteban.

The daring Rogue Theatre Company gambled big, very big, in adapting Thornton Wilder's “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” to its magical minimalist stage.

Then the gamble paid off even bigger on opening weekend as the Rogue's mercurial cast triumphed with its most sweeping, deeply emotional and captivating production ever.

This relatively new company now has its grip on Tucson's committed theater community, developing over the past few years a reputation for converting complicated material into the most gracefully accessible productions of eclectic choices from unexpected places.

“The Bridge of San Luis Rey” caps all that and then some. This is an achievement of considerable difficulty considering at least half the 2 1/2-hour play is narration spoken by actors directly to the audience.

The rest is a series of richly imagined scenes hung like a string of pearls on this textured tale that 11 cast members pass among themselves like story tellers around a campfire.

Rogue co-founder Cynthia Meier did the adaptation, shaping Wilder's text for a dark brown stage design of several levels, dominated by a bridge broken in the middle, its wide chasm emphasizing the random emptiness of chance.

That bridge was in Peru, a woven rope bridge on a major thoroughfare that had served everyone well for centuries until noon on Friday, July 20, 1714, when the bridge suddenly snapped and five people fell to their deaths through no fault of their own.

A humble priest, Brother Juniper (Ryan Parker Knox), was determined to find the hand of God in this senseless tragedy. He spent six years patiently interviewing everyone who had any connection to the five who died.

The heart of the play presents the lives of each one and how they came to be on the bridge at that exact moment. Was God directing them, intervening with coincidence, letting their deaths play out as one small part of His master plan?

As director, Joseph McGrath -- the Rogue's other founder -- achieves the delicate balance of matching these lives with their individual fates. In the process Kathryn Kellner Brown gives a defining performance as the physically twisted Marquesa Dona Maria, a woman gifted with ugliness.

So unpleasing is her appearance, even her own daughter must look away...and then run away to Spain. But the Marquesa insists on loving her daughter deeply, continuing for years to write her letters of exquisite beauty.

Also strong is Marissa Garcia as the famed entertainer Camila Perichole who happily teased and taunted her audiences, especially her male admirers – an Ice Queen of deep zero heartlessness. Later in life when Perichole became a magnet for misfortune, Garcia gave us those moments in equal measure.

Returning to the Rogue stage after a long absence is Christopher Johnson in a smaller role as the troubled Esteban.

It is good to see him back.

Appropriately perhaps, God's will and the passing of time have not been kind to Thornton Wilder's “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.” Considered one of the most influential novels of the 20th century, its influence has been shredded by the ensuing culture wars and 21st century technology.

No matter. Whether you think it is spelled “San Luis Ray” or “San Luis Rey,” go see this Rogue Theatre production. Years from now people will still be talking about it.

“The Bridge of San Luis Rey” runs through May 8, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thusdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, at the Rogue Theatre, 300 E. University Blvd.

All tickets are $35. For details and reservations, 551-2053, or visit theroguetheatre.org


Top of the cream actors (from L) Susan Kovitz, David Alexander Johnston and Lucille Petty stir up Invisible Theatre's "I Ought To Be in Pictures."

There was life before cell phones and laptops. We know this because Invisible Theater is playing Neil Simon's “I Ought To Be in Pictures,” with actors using an actual typewriter and a telephone.

Kind of a shock to see, especially that typewriter. So noisy. How can a writer think with all that clatter going on?

No matter. From out of all this low tech chaos, director Susan Claassen and associate director Fred Rodriguez have created a lighter-than-air comedy laced with loving sentiment in a top cream cast of Lucille Petty, David Alexander Johnston and Susan Kovitz.

Simon's play debuted in 1980, telling the story of Herb (Alexander) who ran away from his New York wife and family in the early Sixties, beating the hippies to California and starting his arty life in Los Angeles as a writer for TV and the movies.

The play opens with the arrival at Herb's cluttered West Hollywood bungalow of his feisty 19-year-old daughter Libby (Petty).

This is a huge break-out performance for Petty. The role calls for her to enter as a petulant teen angry at this father who abandoned her without a second thought and never made any attempt to stay in touch.

Working her way through fifty shades of outward revenge and hidden remorse, Petty is always completely believable. She does this with a genuine inner energy, the soulful kind, not just a lot of jittery surface body language.

Johnston, for his part, matches her scene for scene as the man who has been her reluctant father for 16 years, feeling guilty but not guilty enough to make amends.

Once the belligerent daughter and this blustering defensive father see each other face to face, you can feel them both begin to change. It isn't something you see, but something you feel out in the audience.

Providing the balance in this ensemble trio is Kovitz as Steffy, the free-love girlfriend of Herb, willing to bide her time without any strings attached. Within the play's plot machinations, she becomes the straight-person for both Libby and Herb.

This is Neil Simon, after all. Jokes are the rye bread and sauerkraut that holds everything together. The lack of a decent delicatessen in Los Angeles becomes a running joke for Herb, ever a New Yorker at heart.

What we get is an evening of excellent theater with lots of bubbly fizz but, down under the ice cubes, a touching insistence on the importance of family.

“I Ought To Be in Pictures” continues through May 1 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, at Invisible Theatre, 1400 N. First Ave. An additional 3 p.m. matinee is April 30. All tickets are $30. For details and reservations, 882-9721, or visit invisibletheatre.com