Four fresh and original one-acts delve into the dark corners of Chico
From aging homes whose walls may have witnessed untold tragedies to the infamous tunnels beneath the streets of downtown, there are plenty of dark recesses in Chico where the sun doesn’t shine. These are the places four local playwrights were spurred to explore with the return of the Fresh Ink festival of new works to the Blue Room Theatre.
Until the current production began last Thursday, Fresh Ink—once an annual event—has not graced the theater’s stage for five years. At each festival, a group of local writers is given a theme on which to base a short play. This year, writers Melanie Smith, Martin Chavira, Bryce Allemann and Christian Lovgren were assigned the topic of “Gothic Chico,” a potentially fertile theme in a town with such a distinct character and rich, sometimes strange and colorful local history. The writers’ works were then massaged and made ready for stage by four directors: Loki Miller, Erin A. Tarabini, Jeremy Votava and Frank Bedene.
Collaborative productions can easily become a convoluted mess, a pitfall the writers and directors managed to deftly avoid. Instead, the quartet of works made for a good night’s worth of entertainment and, whether by chance or planning, effectively showcased some of the theater’s most prevalent styles.
First up was “Anything Your Heart Desires,” written by Smith. Miller does double duty, directing and starring as Curtis, a man with incredibly strange mannerisms who scored an after-the-bar rendezvous with an attractive woman named Zoe (Jessica Sijan-Nelsen). They visit a supposedly abandoned old Chico home where Curtis once spent a summer, but their romantic liaison is interrupted by a woman named Diana (Jodi Rives), whom Curtis remembers from his past. The lines between what is real and imagined are blurred as the audience is left to contemplate whether the scene depicts a science-fiction pseudo-reality or the twisted delusions of the mentally disturbed Diana.
Next was “Dr. Stansbury’s Monster” (written by Chavira and directed by Tarabini), in which the historic doctor who built the stately home at Fifth and Salem streets (played by Tony Daum) is fictionalized as a booty-obsessed Dr. Frankenstein-esque madman bent on creating an army of reanimated hookers. Getting in his way are the hilarious Deputy Mulberry (Aubry Bagshaw) and his own Igor-esque sidekick, Vladimir (Jeff Patrick). The madcap farce peaks with a dance/chase scene led by one of Stansbury’s creations, the charming golem Bunny (played by a girl billed only as Britny).
The Zany “Monster” was followed by “The Devil’s Handiwork,” about an elderly widower known as The Chapman Dowager (played by Eileen Burke-Trent) and her distrust of the modern comforts of the 1920s. This all comes to a head when a telephone technician who may be the devil, an angel or just a regular telephone installer comes to call. Written by Allemann and directed by Votava, this scene unfolds like a classic Rod Serling tale, and is peppered with historical references that make it especially enjoyable.
The final act was Lovgren’s “Under the Shadow of the Hooker Oak.” Here another couple heads to a strange place—this time the tunnels under Chico—for a tryst. But one of the two—hapless every-bro Omega (Virgil Ritter) and the seductive Inna (Cat Campbell)—are not what they seem. This scene is given teeth by strange, poetic monologues delivered by a man named Simon (David Orneallas), interesting stage production (the opening is particularly haunting) and, again, plenty of local references for color.
Part of the fun of Fresh Ink for audience members is voting, by ballot, for their favorite one-act of the evening, with the winning playwright getting a cash prize. For that reason, I won’t go into the individual merits of the each short piece too much, but will instead say that they altogether form a fantastic program. The first play is strange and obtuse, the second hilarious and silly, the third a classic chiller, and the final a touch avant-garde. To sum it up, it’s all the themes I expect from and all the reasons I most enjoy the Blue Room rolled into a single evening.