The Return of the Cockroach Theatre

Back for its 10th season, this little theater has big ideas. But does too much ambition come at the expense of pleasing the faithful?

Illustration by Christopher A. Jones

Illustration by Christopher A. Jones

Hearing this makes me genuinely smile. Then sigh. Heavily.

Consider this, from Ernie Curcio, prolific co-resident playwright and top-tier actor of resurgent Cockroach Theatre: “We’re like the Wild Wild West. We’re our own creature, we speak our own vernacular. The Chicago theater scene was born in the 1900s and look where it is now.” … We can aspire to be Chicago?

Or this, from Levi Fackrell, Cockroach’s dedicated managing director: “Look at the off-Broadway of the ’60s and ’70s. Where is that now? New York is saturated with big-money musicals. But there is no expectation of what theater in Las Vegas is. We all get to decide what that’s going to be.” … We can re-create off-Broadway? 

Or this, from Erik Amblad, Cockroach’s talented artistic director: “Las Vegas is poised to become an even more important theatrical city in the next century than any other city in America.”  … AMERICA? 

Pardon my arched eyebrow, which isn’t positioned mockingly, just skeptically, born of perpetual idealism dashed. Proclamations of Greatness Just Over That Next Horizon permanently echo in my ears after covering the survivors (hail Cockroach!); the tent-folders (ciao, Insurgo); the disenfranchised (wherefore art thou, Theatre in the Valley?); the ol’ reliables (props, Las Vegas Little Theatre); and the what-was-your-name-again? (Lil Flo Productions, Olde English Productions, House of Tribes, et al.).

Each time I hear it—for going on 17 years now, as local critic, observer and advocate—I’ve said, and written, Amen, brothers and sisters!

My amen stock is dangerously low. Perhaps it’s time to table the dreams and live the reality as this new season gets under way: Community theater is for this community, not a gateway to some desert Broadway, Sin City Steppenwolf or neon Old Vic. Think of it as parallel to a life lesson we all absorb: Learn to love yourself, not what you will likely never be.

Or, borrowing a phrase: Keep it real.


Cynicism is not my preferred attitude. Smaller-scale optimism, in fact, takes over while watching a Cockroach rehearsal for its 10th-season opener, The Birthday Party, at Art Square Theatre, the intimate—OK, small—venue that became the site of the troupe’s “comeback,” more or less, a year ago.

Painstakingly, Amblad coaches two actors through a physical altercation in Harold Pinter’s classic piece, by turns funny and frightening, about the owner of a lonely coastal resort who throws a birthday party for her lone, strange guest, when two men from his past crash the odd bash.

One actor throws a stage punch to the gut. The other crumbles. Then rises. So did Cockroach, a stellar troupe whose hell-bent-for-survival return—emblematic of their creepy entomological namesake—inflated morale throughout the local theater scene.

Securing a permanent space halted a history of homelessness that saw its productions pinball from host theaters (Onyx, Las Vegas Little Theatre, et al.) to a hotel (the Aruba) to galleries (the Arts Factory) to Downtown touchstones (The Funk House, The Junkyard) to private back yards (thanks, Dayvid Figler). Damn, they were good—sometimes great—since their founding in 2002, even if every show had to be reconfigured to a new space.

“It’s why we are proficient at what we do here,” Fackrell says. “Every space taught us something new about how to adapt and be resourceful with what we could bring in, what we needed. Those lessons served us well.”

Ask anyone who saw their 2004 Caligula, at Downtown’s former SEAT venue, with Fackrell’s riveting lead performance, interpreting the depraved emperor as both a little boy lost and a monster on the make. Or 2005’s Cloud Tectonics at Studio Open, a time-tripping piece of “magical realism.” Or 2006’s Tattoo Girl, a surreal metaphorical stew, at the Aruba.

Fascinating—and risky—fare, pulled off with style and brio.

They keep crawling back: Cockroach creatives Erik Amblad, Ernie Curcio and Levi Fackrell. | Photo by Jon Estrada

They keep crawling back: Cockroach creatives Erik Amblad, Ernie Curcio and Levi Fackrell. | Photo by Jon Estrada

About 2008, Cockroach scurried from the scene. “We had a tacit deal with Neonopolis to occupy a couple of their empty movie theaters, which was right up to the edge of the [economic] downturn,” Fackrell explains. “Then everybody had to sit on their tails. We went into hibernation and things happened in life—weddings, kids—then we went into Creative Studios LV for a year. As the lease was ending, the opportunity arose down here.”

Since then? Each show in their first Art Square season drew good houses, in an eclectic five-show lineup crowned by Arthur Miller’s timeless—and, given America’s economic condition, particularly fresh—Death of a Salesman, featuring Curcio’s turn as Willy Loman.

“We had an extraordinarily successful first season,” Amblad says. “Because we were able to focus our energies and promotions on this space, it was very easy to go from, ‘Where is Cockroach?’ to, ‘What is Cockroach going to do?’” Noting the troupe’s online “Next Stage” fundraising campaign to recruit new members and corporate sponsors, Fackrell adds: “Every show turned a profit but that doesn’t mean we’re profitable, necessarily. A lot of it goes into maintaining this space.”

Profitability, then, is the attainable goal. Dreaming is the hobby—one that masks a community-wide inferiority complex that’s both undeserved and unshakable.


Consider these lines from Waiting for Guffman, filmmaker Christopher Guest’s 1996, community-theater-skewering mockumentary:

* “If there’s an empty space, just fill it with a line, that’s what I like to do. Even if it’s from another show.”

* “I think we have to work on the music a little bit more. But I don’t want to make trouble.”

* “I had a … hankerin’ to be an actor when I was a young feller when I got out of the Coast Guard, but … I went to taxidermy school instead.”

Funny to many, accurate to some, outdated to Curcio. “We’ve got that old, Waiting for Guffman stigma, but that’s not viable anymore,” he says. “We’re above and beyond that.”

True, but unlikely to separate the public from its stubborn bias. Local dance, music and art—all of which function with a core of professionals—will always win the perception war (and media attention) over community theater. Despite the professional-grade talents of warriors such as Amblad, Fackrell and Curcio at Cockroach, and others around town, it’s often met with an aww-isn’t-that cute pat on the cheek by the masses. A lengthy tradition of condescension and indifference shows no signs of abating.

Cockroach Theatre Artistic Director Erik Amblad (left) and actor Scott McAdam talk over a scene from "The Birthday Party," the first play of Cockroach's 2013 season.  | Photo by Jon Estrada.

Cockroach Theatre Artistic Director Erik Amblad (left) and actor Scott McAdam talk over a scene from “The Birthday Party,” the first play of Cockroach’s 2013 season. | Photo by Jon Estrada.

“If we had more theater venues down here, we’d actually have a theater district,” Curcio says hopefully. Adds Fackrell: “We live in a city that has an influx of national and international tourists. When they see The Smith Center is there and they can see The Book of Mormon and Les Miz, they might wonder if there are smaller, edgier theaters. That gives them the opening to inquire.”

Yet that’s a vision—even if dialed back from grandiose Chicago, Broadway and America analogies—that probably won’t be realized. Art galleries dominate Downtown. Tourists, by and large, don’t catch a flight to Vegas to take in Broadway musicals, which are likely to eventually arrive at or near their hometowns. Given that the Smith/Broadway fan base is largely comprised of locals more drawn to Wicked than Waiting for Godot, patron spillover into more daring—even guerilla—theater in the arts district will be minimal, and unsustainable as an audience demographic.

What’s that leave? True believers, comprising a kind of secret society, sipping this cultural nectar behind the backs of the uninitiated.

And isn’t that kind of cool?


We’d love to have you. But we’ll live without you.

How’s that for a marketing strategy for the “Next Stage” campaign?

Granted, it’s strategically risky to speak such words to community-theater avoiders you’re hoping to nudge toward a local playhouse to discover its treasures, reflect on their decades of missing out and leave slapping their heads, V8-style, exclaiming, I coulda had a Tennessee Williams! Or a Yasmina Reza! Or an August Wilson! Or a local playwright with just as much to say and an inventive new way to say it!

Still, it’s an attitude worth adopting.

Sure, do your marketing, local thespians—invite newcomers for pre-show wine and post-show coffee. Remember, though, that it’s the faithful, the loyalists—the hell-yeah-we’ll-be-there-even-if-it’s-the-12th-Eugene-O’Neill-play-we’ve-seen-for-the-sixth-time die-hards—who will butter your bread.

When young, we’re balls-to-the-wall to impress the world. Once matured, we learn to find joy and contentment through friends and family—the ones who’ve always been there and always will—in our own backyard.

That’s here. And that’s us.

Now break a leg.

The Birthday Party by Cockroach Theatre

8 p.m. Oct. 17-19 and 24-26, 2 p.m. Oct. 20 and 27, Art Square Theatre, $16 and $20,

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