Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Stray Cat Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of The Little Dog Laughed and The River Bride

Ian White, Shari Watts, and Cole Brackney Wandelear
Photo by John Groseclose
Over the course of the 16 years that Stray Cat Theatre has been producing edgy works in the Phoenix area, they've presented more plays by L.A.- based playwright Steve Yockey than any other writer. Yockey's latest piece, Mercury, makes its co-world premiere at Stray Cat in connection with Salt Lake Acting Company in Salt Lake City (Stray Cat presented the first reading of the piece and then SLAC produced the finished play last month and their productions are also sharing one very large and critical prop piece). While Mercury may not be as profound or as filled with deep meaning as the last Yockey play Stray Cat produced, Pluto, this dark and bloody black comedy about revenge is an incredibly entertaining and very satisfying journey.

Yockey has filled his play with some horrible people who do horrible things to each other. Some of this is emotional pain but a lot of it is physical. The piece is set somewhere outside of Portland and centers around two couples who end up being connected to each other through a strange curiosity shop run by the equally curious couple Alicia and Sam. Married next door neighbors Pamela and Heather have been having a secret affair behind their husbands' backs, but Heather has broken it off, which forces Pamela's powerful and angry side to surface. In another part of town, boyfriends Nick and Brian have relationship issues of their own, which their nosey neighbor Olive only escalates due to her constant and annoying meddling. And that's all you need to know about the characters and plot to make sure the many twists and turns, both comical and horrific, will both surprise and shock you before the rewarding payoff at the end.

Yockey has created a simple yet intriguing scenario in which to set his story and gives all three couples faithful dialogue that infuses their quarrels and misunderstandings with truthfulness. He also skillfully blends the real with the surreal and creates several nasty characters who, while entirely mean spirited, are incredibly realistic. I believe we all, at one time or another, got pissed off at someone who didn't do something we thought they should have done, or have experienced conversations where people didn't listen to what we were saying and wished something bad on them. Yockey draws upon those common occurrences to make this play entirely relatable.

Ron May's refined direction and his talented cast perfectly tread the line between the comical and dramatic elements of the somewhat bizarre but completely easy to follow piece without going too far into broad comedy. May and his cast also ensure the characters come across as real people and infuse the few terrifying moments of the play with horror.

The piece features an ensemble cast who all get plenty of time to show their talents. As Pamela and Heather, Laura Anne Kenney and Samantha Hanna expertly portray a couple who are at an impasse. While Pamela is filled with rage and anger, under Kenney's beautifully handled delivery we see for a brief moment the tender side Pamela has and understand how Heather was drawn to her. Hanna is equally as good in portraying the woman who seeks revenge and feels betrayed by Pamela's actions.

Ian White and Cole Brackney Wandelear form a realistic couple who constantly bicker and fight, and their interactions are naturally delivered. Brackney Wandelear tenderly portrays Nick, who has moved with his boyfriend to a new city to be close to his ill mother, while White is appropriately annoying as the misplaced Brian, who constantly complains about his new surroundings. Michael Peck and Heather Lee Harper are both imposing and frightening but also sarcastically comical as Alicia and Sam, the mysterious couple whom we learn has a much deeper, and horrifying, profession than just running the curiosity shop. Shari Watts is a gem as the quirky and kooky neighbor who feels slighted by anyone who doesn't conform to her beliefs and views of the world and believes she knows a quick way to easily and resourcefully get vengeance.

At first glance, Aaron Sheckler's set appears to be fairly simplistic, but it has pieces that move and shift to quickly and effectively morph into the other locations of the play. Dallas Nichols' lighting and Peter Bish's sound deliver some impressive moments and, when combined with Sheckler's bright imagery of Mercury, create a very horrifying scenario. The costumes from Maci Cae Hosler are as quirky, colorful and realistic as the characters. Jessica Florez's prop designs are full of detail, with an impressive prop contribution from Steven Glenn Brown and Linda L. Brown.

While Mercury may be a play that has a few things to say concerning the difference between right and wrong behavior, the consequences and repercussions for those seeking revenge, and karma indeed being a bitch, it is also a very rewarding black comedy. Stray Cat Theatre's satisfying production has an excellent cast and superb direction that let you laugh and be appalled at the same time by the actions of the manipulative and needy characters, because you will most likely realize that you know people very much like them. Hopefully, one of those people isn't you.

A word for those who cringe at violence on stage: While there is much talk of violence in the piece, the majority of it happens off stage, though the sight and sound effects and allusions to the horrific acts in this production are quite terrifying indeed.

Mercury at the Stray Cat Theatre runs through December 9th, 2017, with performances at with performances at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe AZ. Tickets can be ordered by calling 480-227-1766 or at

Written by Steve Yockey
Director: Ron May
Stage Manager: Amanda Keegan
Scenic Design/Technical Director: Aaron Sheckler
Costume Design: Maci Cae Hosler
Property Design: Jessica Florez
Lighting Design: Dallas Nichols
Sound Design: Peter Bish
Puppet Design/Construction: Steven Glenn Brown & Linda L. Brown

Cast: (in order of appearance)
Pamela: Laura Anne Kenney
Heather: Samantha Hanna
Alicia: Heather Lee Harper*
Olive: Shari Watts
Brian: Ian White
Nick: Cole Brackney Wandelear
Sam: Michael Peck

*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.