Outside the lines
Subhead Superb cast embraces freedoms in premiere of local playwright’s wild work
For her first full-length play, Good With Faces, Chico playwright/director/actress Hilary Tellesen pulled together a cast of some of the best and brightest players in the local theater scene for what was a spirited world premiere last weekend at the Blue Room Theatre. A combination murder mystery, psychological thriller, character study and postmodern self-referential comedy with an absurdly fractured chronology, the seven-character satire is equal parts hilarious and thought-provoking.
The focal point of the play is the death of psychotherapist Dr. Viland (Rob Wilson), and the action, other than flashbacks and fantasies, occurs at the chapel where his patients meet for the funeral service.
The doctor’s unconventional therapeutic technique, revealed through his soliloquies and dialogues with his all-female patients, is to not encourage adaptation to social norms but rather to allow full self-acceptance of one’s most socially unacceptable qualities by exploring the positive aspects of negativity in one’s psychological ecology. Or, as the doctor sums it up, “I hate boundaries.”
The action proper begins with Officer Duncan (Kyle Horst) questioning Rose (Erin DeSeure), a patient of and witness to the doctor’s murder who is afflicted with prosopagnosia, a disorder in which the ability to recognize familiar faces, including one’s own face, is impaired. Not being “good with faces” has made everyone Rose encounters a stranger, and we learn in flashback that the therapy for her disorder is to greet everyone she meets as a long lost friend. Comic befuddlement ensues.
Next to enter the chapel is Stella (Amber Miller), whose diagnosis of Tourette’s syndrome predisposes her to shouting obscenities, the most publishable of which might be: “Turkey-dick licker!” Miller’s Stella is a proper, matronly lady, aware but not fully conscious of her uncontrollable outbursts, and her facial expressions and body language are as finely crafted as the stained-glass-informed set she designed for the play. She is joined by Clarissa (Blake Nicole Ellis), a leotard-clad young woman who has become the embodiment of a spirited filly, complete with flowing mane, cantering gait and wordless neighing vocal expressions. Ellis embodies the horsy aspects of her character with great acuity and grace, an effect both comic and poignant.
Also attending the funeral is Claudia (Julia Rauter), a compulsive swallower of objects ranging from ballpoint pens to Legos, who has become “a new person” since being cured of her compulsion by the doctor.
The final character to enter the scenario is Sabrina (Samantha Shaner), as brash and foul-mouthed an embodiment of the id as has ever hit a Chico stage. Colorfully tattooed and pierced, Sabrina, we learn, is the dominant lover of Clarissa. Director/playwright Tellesen says on the Blue Room website that, “This is my portrait of trying to kill and give birth to the full fledged female crazy in womanhood.” While that statement may be challenging to parse for semantic or grammatical sense, its emotional content manifests perfectly in the character of Sabrina as inhabited and projected by Shaner, who breathes frighteningly hilarious and exuberant life into the part.
Dominant as Shaner’s Sabrina is, all of the actors are given plenty of time to develop their characters’ intrinsic contributions to Tellesen’s exploration and exhibition of psychological extremes. Wilson’s central role as the doctor serves as a touchstone to each, and his soliloquies and dialogues with the characters embrace an empathic and tragicomic acceptance of extreme behavior that makes the play’s climactic act of violence and subsequent denial emotionally resonant.
All of that and you’ll probably still walk away thinking, “That was pretty fucking funny.”