Expert Comic Timing

I was in a play October/November of 2018 and got a review from Gil Benbrook. One day this experience and the affect it had on my life in all its gooey bits will be shared. For now. I am excited for 2019 and grateful for having a little more insight towards the greater goal (which is still under construction). .

Red Velvet Cake War

Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil’s reviews of Young Frankenstein and Frankenstein

Tina Khalil, Shelly Boucher, and Jacque Arend
Photo by Carly Weekley

Playwrights Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten have crafted a fairly successful career out of their series of fun comedies that center on eccentric southern characters. While their The Red Velvet Cake War may not be as well constructed as some of their other comedies, TheaterWorks’ production features a cast who throw themselves into these wacky and outrageous characters with glee, including Jacque Arend who is superb as the frazzled Gaynelle Verdeen Bodeen.

The plot centers around the members of the Verdeen family, including the three close cousins Gaynelle, Peaches, and Jimmie, as they face a series of obstacles. Gaynelle is on edge after she recently and “accidental” crashed her car into her husband’s girlfriend’s doublewide trailer and because of that incident could be declared insane. Fear of how that escapade has tarnished the family name has forced Aunt LaMerle to cancel the upcoming family reunion. But Peaches and Jimmie have a plan: if Gaynelle can successfully host the reunion surely that will prove she’s sane to the court-appointed psychologist who has been assigned to her case. When Aunt LaMerle gets wind of the cousins’ plan, it sets her tongue a-wagging. But Gaynelle has had enough of her aunt’s self-righteous attitude, so bets that not only can she pull the reunion off but that her red velvet cake will beat LaMerle’s prize-winning dessert in a taste test. With her house as the wager, Gaynelle has even bigger problems; she has no idea how to make a red velvet cake.

Jones, Hope and Wooten have come up with a fun and fast-paced plot with some very funny moments, but the silly sitcom style and over the top characters threaten to derail it at times. Fortunately, director Dominik Rebilas keeps the pace brisk and the comedy in check; in spite of it being broad, it never gets too unbelievable or out of control. He also ensures the entire cast are equipped for the farce-like second act in which the three doors on William Symington’s smart set are constantly in motion. The cast also look great in Whitney Tres’ costumes which deliver some big laughs, including the tight-fitting numbers for Peaches.

With an urgency in her line delivery and a rich Southern accent that resembles a young Holly Hunter at times, Jacque Arend has the right level of spunkiness and uncertainty to provide plenty of layers in her portrayal of the troubled Gaynelle. She also has expert comic timing and a deep sense of tenacity. Arend beautifully evokes this fragile, crazed and unpredictable woman who is at wit’s end. Shelly Boucher and Tina Khalil are hilarious, with humorous line delivery and good comic chips, as her two cousins, the sex-crazed, mortuary cosmetologist Peaches and the rough and tough, tomboyish, western wear store manager Jimmie. Arend, Boucher and Khalil also create characters that evoke a firm, close-knit sisterly relationship which ensures there is also plenty of heart and a realistic family bond portrayed in their performances.

In the supporting cast, Peter Cunniff is a hoot as the dim-witted, one-eyed suitor Newt, and Christy Welty is an absolute pain in the ass as Aunt LaMerle. Amanda Kei Glenn is full of fire as a feisty neighbor, and Peter J. Hart is humorous as the girl’s 90-year-old Uncle Aubrey, though you never once believe Hart is actually that old. Dan Clanton, Toni Jourdan, and Amber Ryan round out the cast.

The Red Velvet Cake War is an absurd, screwball comedy featuring outrageous characters and outlandish situations. It may not be a perfect comedy, but with a game cast and fast-paced direction, TheaterWorks’ production sure shows it can be a lot of fun.

The Red Velvet Cake War, through November 11, 2018, at TheaterWorks, 8355 West Peoria Avenue, Peoria AZ. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling 623-815-7930.

Director: Dominik Rebilas
Scenic Designer: William Symington
Lighting Designer: Annie Fair
Costume Designer: Whitney Tres
Hair and Make-Up Designer: Kim Nolan
Props Designer: Petey Swartz
Sound Designer: Matthew Sanders
Stage Manager: Jenn Goettertz

Gaynelle Verdeen Bodeen: Jacque Arend
Peaches Verdeen Belrose: Shelly Boucher
Sheriff Grover Lout / Purvis Verdeen: Dan Clanton
Newt Blaylock: Peter Cunniff
Bitsy Hargis: Amanda Kei Glenn
Aubrey Verdeen: Peter J. Hart
Elsa Dowdall: Toni Jourdan
Jimmie Wyvette Verdeen: Tina Khalil
Cee Cee Windham / Mama Doll Hargis: Amber Ryan
LaMerle Verdeen Minshew: Christy Welty

Improv Now #2

I have been very open about this to many people, friends mostly. Therefore, it might seem odd to others who perhaps used to see me around a lot and always on stage. I developed a strong sense of anxiety about improv. Not the performance aspect, but of the chains I wrapped around me to keep it in place. I did truly believe Improv was it for me. The end of the road. For a time… and in reality 10 years – 13 years really, of dedication to something would be the end of the road. I’ve said out loud that I started improv because it didn’t take much discipline to enjoy – but in loving it, in finding that passion and surrounding myself with it. I became disciplined. Not only am I a stronger performer, a more capable instructor, I also learned so many skills in co-founding the Torch Theatre and building the admin as well as managing the Phoenix Improv Festival. I didn’t mind the weight of the chains. I carried them with pride. But eventually, circa last fall, my anxiety was out of control. I experienced it every day and felt like the chains were too heavy. The main trigger was time. I just never felt like I had enough time. I’ve been taking acting classes since 2016 and at first I wasn’t in a hurry. I wasn’t looking for something new, but eventually my priorities began to shift. Last year in November I took a performance break from improv. This included all my teams. It was hard, but also liberating. I had to listen to that. I am ready to work differently. People always ask me if I noticed my acting focus impacting my improv. I say not really, and the reason is, I was always an actor, and I struggled in improv not getting what I find in acting. I think it gives improv a new meaning for me. First off, it’s no longer number 1. I am number 1 now. It feels like it can get back to where it was, when I first discovered it. Collaborative, creative and great company. I’m not sure what’s next for me, and I’m certainly not going anywhere yet, but I have broken the chains and am in the woods wandering to find the next road. Which is quite adventurous and lovely, this story does not have danger in the forrest.

Last year I made a goal for myself and it’s now a year later and I have not resolved it. This is frustrating, but in the same regard, I did take action, one little step at a time. I have my first real audition for theater tonight, excited for the experience. I have always been a writer, but I never wrote for anyone but myself. I journaled a lot and when I was young and in my 20s I wrote romances, the romance writing was a way to subdue my boy crazy mind. I got married in 2012 and I stopped writing. Haha – you can make whatever connection you want. This last year I realized around that same time I stopped listening to music. My husband and I have improv in common, and I think we 100% created new identities within this unit. When he chose to break away from the Torch, I was pretty settled on trying to get out of the Theater running business all together. I had absolutely no interest in the work anymore. So I let him go on his own. This for me was a great opportunity for us to put some distance in our lives. We had both worked at the Torch together and sometimes it got very difficult as opinions would differ and frustrations rose. I think by making this change in our relationship, as well as my home office situation I was becoming more self aware and finding my identity again. Recently as I was trying to free myself, I started to be entertained by Martin Freeman, interviews, news articles, and in the process of digging out all the golden nuggets under the surface, I found music again. I have to mention that, because it was truly a profound inspiration on living a happier life. I certainly dance a lot more. I remember when I got ignited again around 24 years in age working in a restaurant with friendships and beer my main focuses. It was Shaun of the Dead. That’s when improv seemed like the right thing for me. I loved comedy, I had forgotten. Anyway, back to the writing. I had started writing again a couple years ago, maybe 3ish, maybe I never stopped, I just thought I did. I always wrote freehand. One point I thought, this is a full story, and transcribed all the print over to a document. In three days I finished copying it. I had a complete thing. Unfortunately I didn’t format it right, or provide descriptions. So it needs work and I lost focus. A couple months ago, I returned to another story I wrote, changed the stupid plot line, kept the characters, formatted it along the way and now it’s an unedited 139 pages of a confused movie idea. In exploring one very played out reality that I was addicted to living in, I got two great scenes for a one act play and a full sketch. I think my point is that I’m finishing things. Well, I’m doing things. My coach Brandy Hotchner is an amazing champion to have on your side. Much of my confidence as an artist and letting myself live as an artist, consider myself an artist was from her support and it is what’s truly led me to this new place in my life. I mentioned that writing for me seems very intimate and I almost have a strong sense of guilt for escaping. As if it’s a vice, almost dirty. She encouraged me to think on what created that and to learn to understand my own artistic process. I have to say – that did help. When you become a certain type of person with certain behaviors, it’s odd when you try to change them.

These pictures below are from the recent Phoenix Improv Festival. For another year I played in four different groups. This is a big honor that does weigh heavy on me. I appreciate the exposure and the opportunity to attack the stage, but it does take a lot of energy and sometimes I’d rather sit back and enjoy. Of course we have to mention the obvious, that’s a lot of Jacque. I did resign from the Phoenix Improv Festival this year. That might be news as well. Not for any reason other than it was time. Those chains again and I have been managing it the same way for 7 years, it’s probably time for a change. This change thing has been coming up around my fellow improv pioneers in other cities. We certainly can’t let it end with us, so we have to get out of the way.


Camp Imrov Utopia

Let me take you back to April of 2010. I was deep into Phoenix Improv Festival hospitality management – making sure that all our visiting troupes were checked into the Holiday Inn Express downtown. I had just said hello to my one of my favorite visiting improvisors Nick Armstrong in the hallway just beyond the lobby – as we split up to go our separate ways and I was on to my next order of business – Nick shouted down the hall to me “you won’t have to work this hard at Camp Improv Utopia!” and my immediate response was “I’m in!” He had just launched the announcement of the very first Camp coming up the next year in May 2011 at Camp Ocean Pines in Cambria, California. I was in – the concept sounded amazing. Going back to a camp atmosphere with a bunch of adult improvisors, taking workshops and sharing our passions with around 100 like minded people, learning, growing, networking – sounded amazing. And so, after Festival weekend that year – I registered and put my check in the mail. Little did I know – I would be the first camper ever. It’s hard to revisit the experience that far back. I remember lots of great moments and the connections I made that I’d like to think are still prevalent today. I not only got to learn from Susan Messing at that camp – something I would have previously needed to go back to Chicago to do – but I also got to socialize with her on a peer level. Perhaps that is the most amazing aspect of Camp – or one of the amazing aspects. We all strive for greatness – therefore we all strive to learn from the greats before us and the Camp atmosphere is just that, a bunch of peers learning and sharing with each other. There are no egos – therefore – people like Craig Cackowski, Susan Messing, Paul Vaillancourt, Dave Razowski, Jamie Moyer, Karen Graci, Brian O’Connell, Kevin Mullaney – among a few to mention – are just another camper. Not only does camp connect you with your immediate community members who share the experience – but also the national community who are all just trying to bring things back home with them. Things evolved out of this camp – more festival submissions due to the amazing networking site for improvisors, now called Improv Network, which was born out of the Bill Binder, Nick Armstrong connection – more visiting cities outside of festivals, more sharing knowledge with other theaters and ultimately – a national community that is more connected – to the point that you can visit any city – on business, on vacation – passing through and you can find a theater to visit, play or even teach a workshop at, and those communities treat you like family.

I’m compelled to share this experience on my blog because I just returned from my third year at Camp East in the Pennsylvania Poconos. I had only gone to the first two years of Camp West. I chose not to continue because I was trying to have a baby – to no avail. Please don’t be sad about that – life is just how it is always supposed to be – but after that third year I chose not to attend again – Camp West blew up and sold out before it was even open a week – now going into it’s sixth year – if you don’t stay up all night and submit every minute – you may not make it. However there are great perks to being on the waitlist so submit anyway! In 2013 Nick approached me regarding his decision to add a Camp East – in the Poconos of Pennsylvania and assist in registration. I happily accepted as it was work that I was already doing for the Torch Theatre and felt very proficient at. And so it began – building the culture again and linking the East coast into the amazing community that is Camp Improv Utopia. Now after our third year and at a new Camp this year – Camp Trout Lake – East has become a beautiful thing – more beautiful than imaginable. Don’t get me wrong, the first two years were great – and many campers returned – as counselors and campers in the know, comfortable and excited. However, this year – going backwards for a brief moment, I missed the wonderful experience of year three out West – but so thrilled to have committed to it at East. I always say when teaching group games – it takes one to inspire the idea, it takes two to support it – it takes three to make it a game. And what a beautiful game it is! — please, please, please – as an improvisor of any level – I highly recommend this experience. This year in 2016, Improv Utopia introduced a third camp – Camp Yosemite – I didn’t go – as I was being reserved with travel and money – but the experience those campers had, at another beautiful location this time focusing on formats all weekend, permeates off of them like an aura of enlightenment.

Camp Trout Lake – Stroudsberg, PA 2016 – take in the mist over the lake at night!