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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

John McGivern Adds Depth to ‘American Fiesta’

Theater Review

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Talented storyteller John McGivern proves that a play about pottery can be entertaining, funny and thought-provoking, and may even leave the audience a bit teary-eyed. At least that’s the case when McGivern appears in a solo show, American Fiesta, which opened on Friday night. The Renaissance Theaterworks production continues through May 23.

The play by Steven Tomlinson is about Fiesta ware, that colorful, mix-and-match dishware so loved by Depression-era housewives. A fascinating story about Fiesta ware’s creation is revealed in the course of the play, along with myriads of other “Fiesta factoids.”

Although McGivern creates about 20 characters during the play’s 90 minutes, the main one is a 50-ish gay man named Steven (gee, is this perfect casting, or what?). McGivern mainly is known for his one-man autobiographical shows about growing up in Milwaukee. He spends a lot of time reflecting about relationships and community, themes that also surface in American Fiesta. Steven, from rural Oklahoma, begins collecting Fiesta ware as a diversion during a particularly stressful time in his life. He tries to find “perfection” in the vintage dishes when his “imperfect” parents are not about to accept his same-sex union. When Steven’s parents refuse to travel to Vancouver, British Columbia, to witness the wedding ceremony, the pain is easily registered in Steven’s face.

The play has an interesting history of its own. The Oklahoma-born playwright was commissioned to write the piece by a noted theater company in Austin, Texas. In 2007, it won a prestigious national award for new playwrights and even had a brief, Off-Broadway run in New York. Playwright Tomlinson typically is the one who performs the piece in productions staged across the country. According to Renaissance insiders, Tomlinson plans to appear in Milwaukee in May to see McGivern’s performance. For Tomlinson, it will be a rare chance to sit in the audience and observe his own work.

It is not surprising that a play written by someone with a Ph.D. in economics from Stanford University would be a bit cerebral. Thankfully, Tomlinson only shows this side of him briefly. One hilarious scene compares the original Fiesta ware colors to the color-coded levels established by Homeland Security.

McGivern is able to make audiences feel as though they are among McGivern’s friends and neighbors. This quality boosts American Fiesta to a higher level for Milwaukee audiences. Perfection, as Steven learns during the play, lies in the eye of the beholder.

Renaissance Theaterworks’ American Fiesta continues at the Broadway Theatre Center through May 23.

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