Classics old and new revived in two new productions
Raymond Carver Festival, Blue Room Theatre
At the heart of this year’s Blue Room homage to Raymond Carver is an adaptation of the famed minimalist’s most famous story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The story yields lots of insight into its characters—especially Mel, the drunken heart surgeon who knows so little about the human heart. During Friday night’s show, the cast did a fine job of bringing that piece to life, especially Andy Hafer as Mel. Directed by Melanie Smith, this portion of the evening’s offerings was the best of the lot, a tight exegesis of the story itself, sodden with drunken undercurrents.
Chico has long claimed Carver as its own because the man lived in Paradise and attended Chico State, studying writing under John Gardner, an equally illustrious writer. Denver Latimer curated this homage to Carver (and directs one of the pieces), and he also plays Carver as he anchors two of the dramatizations and recites four of his poems. Latimer looks a little like Carver, and he evokes the man skillfully, especially in moments like the one in which he recites “Highway 99E from Chico,” a gorgeous poem made more gorgeous because the scene is familiar.
The show closes with a lengthy recitation of Carver’s piece about Charles Bukowski—“You Don’t Know What Love Is (an evening with Charles Bukowski).” Bukowski has always seemed bogus to me, a false prophet to the young who perennially mystify drink and dissolution. This particular piece struck me as portraying Bukowski at his worst, a grandiose and loquacious drunk. Though Carver, too, was a noted dipso, the two men always seemed quite different sorts of literary sensibilities. To this reviewer it didn’t make sense to close the Carver show with his homage to a Bukowski rant, even though Latimer did a good job with it.
But kudos to Latimer and the stalwart band, troupers all. Their hard work and devotion brought Carver back home.
Revenger’s Tragedy, Wismer Theatre, Chico State
If you’re going to be doing a 400-year-old play on a modern-day college campus, there had better be plenty of extreme violence, or at least a lot of sex, or at the very least some loud music. Fortunately, the Chico State theater department’s current production of the The Revenger’s Tragedy has all three. That said, after taking in the final dress rehearsal on Monday, I feel obligated to add that if you are squeamish about severed tongues, booming industrial music, or simulated blowjobs, well, get over it and give in to what is a fantastic spectacle.
This production is a 2005 adaptation of a Jacobean revenge tragedy written originally in 1604. Playwright Jesse Berger added material from Shakespeare, Francis Bacon and John Donne, among others, and has updated the early modern English some for this story about revenge and corruption in an Italian court thick with lust and deceit.
The play opens with the sexed-up ensemble slithering and grinding through a set dressed to resemble an S&M discotheque, with red velvet, black walls and metal chains hanging from rebar columns rising to the ceiling. Emerging from the writhing fray is Vindice (the amazing Mikey Perdue), the revenger of the title and a man willing to do just about anything—even corrupt himself and his own family—to make the evil Duke pay for the murder of his wife nine years earlier.
But there are more sins than that old murder, and more revenge plots in play. The court (and the country) is dripping with exploitation, treason, rape, incest and more, and everyone, even the so-called “Righteous Few,” is out for blood.
While the nearly 2 1/2 hours of unyielding, dense dialogue might be a bear to sit through, the across-the-board commitment of all of the players to the bloodlust never lets up. That, combined with the bold, well-timed sound, lighting and movement, keeps things fresh and exciting throughout. It’s sexy, disgusting, chaotic and frightening: I really can’t say enough good things about it. Whitlock is a theater professor and director known for taking chances, and she and her team of evildoers have outdone themselves here. Bravo!