Banner year on the boards

CN&R critic looks back at local theater in 2015

Brandon Hilty as frustrated playwright Con in the Blue Room’s September production of <i>Stupid Fucking Bird</i>.

Brandon Hilty as frustrated playwright Con in the Blue Room’s September production of Stupid Fucking Bird.

Photo by Joe Hilsee

Theater lovers in Butte County enjoyed a great year of stage productions—ranging from classics of modern dramatic theater to revivals of musical classics and to original artistic pieces. Local production companies, theater troupes and Chico State and Butte College’s drama departments kept stages lit up and filled with grand, crafty and, at times, challenging entertainment. What follows are highlights of what this reviewer enjoyed in 2015—offered with the hope that readers will be inspired to explore more local theater in coming year.

After some transitioning years of at times irregular programming at the Blue Room Theatre, Chico’s signature black box theater, filled 2015 with a nicely curated and varied schedule of well-staged productions—from an update of Chekov’s The Seagull (Stupid Fucking Bird) to The Elephant Man. In February, Joyce Henderson directed Sam Shepard’s True West, giving us a jagged—and occasionally hilarious—slice-of-life glimpse into the conflicted existences of two long-estranged brothers who unexpectedly reunite in their mother’s cozy suburban home when she is off on a sightseeing trip in Alaska. Joe Hilsee starred as semi-successful, typewriter-tapping screenwriter and family man Austin, and Fred Stuart played his older brother Lee, a manic desert rat, home burglar and Pabst-swilling drunkard. With its brilliant script, extraordinary four-character cast and masterful direction, this was community theater at its best.

In March, the Blue Room presented another challenging modern classic, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, directed by Matt Hammons. Barbed quips flew like darts and barbed-wire statements entangled the four characters in the tragicomic camaraderie of educated after-hours drunks with nowhere better to go and nothing better to do, but with plenty to say about everything—especially if it hurt when delivered with a leer or smirk.

Meanwhile in Paradise, Jerry Miller—artistic director of Theatre on the Ridge—brought some less well-known, but equally brilliant, pieces to the stage. In April’s production of Peter & Alice, playwright John Logan gave us a fictional glimpse into the lives and minds of the real people who inspired two of children’s literature’s most beloved characters—Alice of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. With its very serious themes regarding the individual’s experience of age and memory, fantasy and reality, and its complex narrative blending and shifting between emotional realism and fantastic invention, Peter & Alice offered drama worthy of serious contemplation. But it was also very entertaining in the brilliance of its writing and the quality of its staging.

In a much less traditional theater setting, Samantha Shaner (née Perry)—a 25-year veteran of local theater—created the Triple Threat theater arts program at Chico’s Boys & Girls Club. “Triple threat” is a theater colloquialism for a performer who can sing, dance and act, and Perry’s program is designed to reach young people at an age when they can develop the confidence and skills necessary to be proficient at all three. This year’s children’s troupe’s presentation of The Princess Bride proved that Shaner’s program is working well as a confidence-boosting creative outlet.

At the university’s Harlen Adams Theatre in October, Chico State’s Theatre Department put on a grand classic production in the form of Aphra Behn’s 1677 proto-feminist comedic romance, The Rover. Director Katie Whitlock filled the large stage with gorgeous costumes and witty characters. The opening-night performance fairly sparkled with energy, and its themes of youthful rebellion, love, lust, courtship and marriage resonated with questions of gender roles and privilege that ring as true in this age as they did when it was written. Postscript: Director Whitlock, an associate professor in Chico State’s Theatre Department, died unexpectedly on Dec. 7, leaving a big hole in the heart of the local theater scene.

And on the north end of town, Chico Theater Company’s The King and I delivered all one could hope for in musical theater. The holiday-time production filled the stage with a sumptuously costumed cast of 24, exquisite choreography, beautiful songs, witty dialogue and poignant romance.