“View From the Tracks: the Light Rail Plays” took one of the most basic elements of theater — the stage itself — and moved that out of a building and into the world. The performance, which consisted of eight short plays, took place at the Roosevelt and Camelback light rail stations and on the light rail train itself. Rising Youth Theatre received a $10,000 grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts to put on the plays and also worked closely with Valley Metro.
Despite that partnership, some of the performance’s elements — perhaps unavoidably so — were complicated by the play’s unique setting. Two of the performances took place headed westbound on the light rail, but the train was the most packed I’d ever seen it, with hundreds of Phoenix Comicon attendees headed back to their hotels and homes. I saw the performance on Saturday night, so I can only imagine how much worse the crowds were the previous night with First Friday attendees, too.
In theory, this expanded the plays’ audience by a large margin, but it also made it impossible to hear, let alone see, the performances that took place on the train between the Roosevelt and Camelback stations. Thankfully, one was moved to the Camelback station, so I still saw almost the entire show. And the play’s unique format allowed for three performances every night, making a total of nine performances over the weekend.
I was intrigued to see how the performers would interact with their settings. I knew ahead of time that great care would be taken to make sure unassuming bystanders knew what they were seeing was a play, so there would likely be no improvised conversations or actions.
Most of the performances seemed to merely take place on the train or at the stations — they could have been moved back into a theater without losing any of the material. A couple of them related topically to the light rail, depicting encounters one might have waiting at the station or riding the train, but there wasn’t an overarching theme or storyline.
Still, the plays were enjoyable simply for their acting. Each of the performers clearly enjoyed what they were doing, whether it was telling corny jokes or delivering a monologue about remembering the date the Civil War began.
My favorites were the last three plays: “Blue String of Destination,” (the one moved off the train to the Camelback station), “Polarity of Glass Cleaner,” and “Native Sons,” which was based on a poem by Myrlin Hepworth. They were the most complex; the plays with the most to say about culture and society.
In “Blue String of Destination,” Julie Rada plays an intriguing woman from Phoenix’s past who lands in the present-day city. She carries on a conversation with a contemporary young adult character played by Bridget Marlowe — the two have their best moments when they are sliding small objects down a length of string back and forth to each other, trying to overcome the differences between their two time periods.
Anthony Kelly and Clare Emmert have excellent chemistry in “Polarity of Glass Cleaner,” mimicking each other’s actions and then voicing their character’s thoughts. Their piece highlighted the similarities between two people who seem extremely different at first glance; the two also made excellent use of the light rail train, moving around one end of the car.
“View From the Tracks: the Light Rail Plays” was a fun and inventive series of performances, and I’m eager to see what the next iteration could bring. Now that the format has proven itself possible, I’m sure the next plays will experiment a bit more with setting and story.
I’d love to see an experimental theater troupe play around with the improvisational capabilities of performing on the light rail. Maybe the “No Pants Light Rail Ride” will soon have competition for the most entertaining show on our city’s public transportation.
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Editor’s note: Curtain Critic is the Downtown Devil weekly theater review.