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Blue Room unveils erratic New Works; Chico Cabaret heads for the hills

OUT ON A LEDGE Hikers out for a “men’s weekend” hilariously try to capture food in Chico Cabaret’s production of Wild Guys. Left to right are Joe Manente, Jeff Dickenson and Marc Edson.

OUT ON A LEDGE Hikers out for a “men’s weekend” hilariously try to capture food in Chico Cabaret’s production of Wild Guys. Left to right are Joe Manente, Jeff Dickenson and Marc Edson.

Photo by Tom Angel

It was an evening of hit-and-miss theater last Thursday night at the Blue Room Theatre in downtown Chico. The company unveiled its annual Fresh Ink: New Works Festival, a sort of marathon event where selected authors have one week to complete a 15- to 30-minute play utilizing pre-selected elements. This year, those elements consisted of an unseen tattoo, a FedEx box, and at least one reference to a Peter Frampton song.

Rather than auditioning playwrights, as in previous seasons, the Blue Room approached “produced” authors this year, a move, one would think, practically guaranteeing challenging and enjoyable pieces. Even so, the actual quality pretty much registered all over the scale.

New York Young Playwrights Festival winner Noble Smith offered The Last One in the House Turns Out the Lights. Sort of like a cross between The Real World and Survivor, the one-act portrays four characters placed in the same house by a TV show, the one who can drive the others out in a set time winning big. Smith gets off a few telling yet mostly obvious shots at “reality TV,” and the actors handle their roles well, yet somehow the whole thing feels somewhat like a lazy “shaggy dog” story with a particularly flat punch line. The required elements came off as obligatory references and little more.

Next came the first of four installments of a piece by Wranglers playwright Bryon Burruss. Given Circumstances pulls the neat gag of presenting four completely different premises—a rehearsal, a heist, two priests and a rabbi waiting for the world’s end, and a ménage à trois videotaping its fun—with the exact same set of dialogue, the words ambiguous enough to apply themselves to the situations. While effective, the piece comes off ultimately as junk food—something one happily munches on and then forgets about an hour later. The three elements are here, albeit somewhat awkwardly inserted.

Notes Toward the Definition of a Relationship: Parallels by Mia McIver was decidedly the low point of the evening. The basic concept was good: A couple “discusses” their future, while another couple mimes boxing, or enacts a chess match and so forth. The problem here was the dialogue, which, however articulate, came off as one huge psychological spew. It was the kind of thing that serves as a great exorcism for its author but unfortunately only as annoying blather for its audience. I honestly can’t remember if this piece utilized the three elements or not; after five minutes I silently prayed for the thing to end … quickly.

Fortunately, the best came after intermission. Vanessa Hudson’s P.F. was both entertaining and thoughtful, and also lustily embraced the required elements. Instead of handling them at arm’s length like dead, unavoidable rodents, Hudson made the elements the hub upon which her story revolves. The tale follows P.F., a deluded middle-aged man who thinks he is ‘70s rock star Peter Frampton. He awaits a FedEx package supposedly returning his “Golden Throat"—a device popularized by Frampton that makes a guitar sound as if it is speaking. If he can just regain this, he can write another hit and put his life back on track. His generally tolerant daughter, Britney (lots of funny Britney Spears references), his young guitar teacher, Justin, and several package deliverers played by the same person also figure in.

Overall, this is a slightly spotty “New Works Festival” from the Blue Room. However, Hudson’s play mostly renders the entire show worth sitting through.

Meanwhile out at the Chico Cabaret, a generally enjoyable production of Paul Wreggitt and Rebecca Shaw’s Wild Guys is being presented. The tale follows four more-or-less average men out for one of those Robert Bly-type, get-in-touch-with-your-inner-primitive weekends in the wilds of Alberta, Canada. Stewart and Randall are only hoping for a beer-fueled, beef-loaded, get-away-from-the-girls camp-out, but Andy and Robin have much more esoteric ambitions for the trek: uncovering the group’s true feelings as individuals and rediscovering what it truly means to be men.

Unfortunately, with an eye toward spurring the men to “live off the land,” natural-foods-store employee and crystal-wielder Robin has quietly decided against bringing any food for the group. Complicating matters even more, Stewart, who swears he knows the area like the back of his hand, manages to get the group lost. What follows is predictable yet comfortably enjoyable: The men argue, go through a few dangerous situations, eventually unload their personal problems, learn to function as a group, and so forth.

Brian Holderman brings a nice sensitivity to the role of Andy, the man whose idea initiates the whole trip; the character has a knack for bringing out the problems of others yet suffers a few damning secrets of his own. As beer-guzzling, directionless Stewart (there’s an ironic name!), Marc Edson brings a kind of familiar warmth. His Stewart reminds one of what can only be dubbed “the typical neighbor guy.” Edson reels off the character’s comments and observations with natural offhandedness. As uptight, heights-fearing lawyer Randall, Jeff Dickenson brings terrific body language and sharp delivery.

Best of all here is Joe Manente as “hippy” backpacker-type Robin. Manente continues to impress with this latest in a string of characters markedly different from any he’s previously portrayed (including Einstein in last year’s Blue Room production Picasso at the Lapine Agile). Here, Manente crafts his character with boundless energy and an almost annoying positivism, both of which break down the first time he’s faced with a significant obstacle (a rushing river, in this case).

Director Phil Ruttenburg keeps things moving. The production also benefits from a humorous selection of between-scenes music, including such obvious yet effective tunes as "Wild Thing," as well as such delightfully unexpected pieces as the themes from cartoon shows "George of the Jungle" and "Jonny Quest."