Noir on the Ridge
Paradise theater plays through the blackout
Not many plays could survive a power blackout at intermission, but to Paradise’s Theatre on the Ridge, which survived the Camp Fire, the show must go on, right?
That true grit served it well on Saturday (June 8), when PG&E pulled the plug powering a large swath of the Sierra foothills. It did so, it said, to lessen the chance of another uncontrollable fire breaking out because of the wind—not that there’s much left to burn in Paradise.
PG&E did provide advance notice of the possible shut-off, giving the TOTR troupe time to set up a backup flood light for the evening’s showing of the noir mystery/comedy Pulp. While it couldn’t salvage Gary Kupp’s clever spot-lighting design that added so much to Act One, at least the big light enabled the actors to finish Act Two, much to the delight of the audience.
(By the way, when director Jerry Miller surveyed the crowd just prior to the performance, the theater was more than half full, a good turnout for a company that has lost most of its Paradise base. In fact, all but about six of the attendees did not live on the Ridge. To Miller, that so many people drove to Paradise from elsewhere was an encouraging sign of how broad the theater’s fan base is.)
Set in Los Angeles in 1933, Joseph Zettelmaier’s play is an often hilarious send-up of film noir and the pulp fiction popular during the 1930s and ’40s. As it opens, Frank Ellery (Jeff Hohimer), a has-been detective who never was, is sitting in his office, like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, when a sexy dame (Sarah Brown) with an unlikely name, Desiree St. Claire, walks in and hires him to solve a murder mystery.
Turns out St. Claire is a writer of pulp romance novels, and the dead man, Bernie Wolcott, was her literary agent. Wolcott was also the agent of three other writers of pulp fiction: Bradley Rayburn (Eric Ricketts), science fiction; R A Lyncroft (Tony Varicelli), horror; and Walter Kingston-Smith (Christopher Jones), hero pulps. The four writers were Wolcott’s only clients, and he was blackmailing every one of them, so to Ellery they were all suspects.
The genius of Pulp is in its structure. As Ellery follows the threads that will lead to the unmasking of the killer, he goes to each of their abodes, plunging us into the worlds of their novels. Lyncroft, for example, is creepy like someone out of the Addams family, while Rayburn, the sci-fi nerd, wears a crazy space helmet with colorful lights going on and off. Kingston-Smith sashays into his scenes like a bizarre Batman, half hiding behind his cape, and St. Claire works her romantic charms on Ellery, who can’t seem to decide whether she’s a murderer or a lover.
This is all great fun, and very funny at times. Zettelmaier also injects some romantic tension into the tale, as Ellery and St. Claire work their way to love—or at least sex—in the midst of all this absurdity.
Hohimer’s Ellery has a voice like Humphrey Bogart’s, and his character has a sly wit that gives everything he says extra meaning. His encounters with Brown, who makes an excellent St. Claire, are dripping with double entendres, and his first-person off-stage narration has an appropriately noir tone.
Pulp sets a frenetic pace, with set changes every few minutes. Sometimes the noise of moving furniture overwhelmed Ellery’s narration, but that’s a fixable problem. Otherwise, this is a terrific show. I urge Chico theater-goers to make that short trip up the hill to support TOTR and enjoy this delightful production.