Scene of the crime

Slow Theatre returns to its guerrilla-theater roots

Theater on the edge of town.

Theater on the edge of town.

Photo by Erin Wade

Garage Fest, Saturday, June 1.

Long before it was a multiday festival attracting thousands to a makeshift theater in an orchard in south Chico, the Butcher Shop was a DIY performance-art party that took place in a garage. Hence the name of Slow Theatre’s inaugural Garage Fest, which debuted last weekend (May 31-June 1). It was the local theater troupe’s return to its avant-garde roots, an updated version of the Butcher Shop that featured music, dance, original short plays and improv.

The garage this time was a much more refined location, at a home on Eaton Road on the edge of town. The open-air venue featured folding chairs for the audience in the driveway facing the “stage.” There also was an attached carport sheltering the live music, as well as beer, cocktails and Greek food for sale.

Producer and emcee Denver Latimer—one of the founders, who started the Butcher Shop in 1989 with his siblings and friends in his parents’ garage—introduced the opening Short Form Set, by the Chico Live Improv Comedy troupe. The experience was kind of like being a fly on the wall at an intermediate acting class.

Improvisational comedy is challenging, requiring absolute commitment, courage and instantaneous communal creativity. The most successful of the improv “games” was “Hollywood Director,” for which an audience member supplied the title, “Love in the Sky.” The comedians, under the direction and at the whim of Justin Bryant, continually had to change the presentation from science fiction, to musical, to Disney film.

The improv set’s closing monologue, by Chris Murphy, on the theme “betrayal,” was shortened when a nonmetaphorical raincloud passed overhead with a brief shower, sending the audience to seek shelter near the refreshment outlets.

After the unscheduled intermission, the Chico Dance Lab company took over the garage. Most enjoyable, and somewhat eerie, was a group dance performed to a remix of Blondie’s classic 1978 song “Heart of Glass,” arranged by avant-garde composer Philip Glass. The choreography evoked the pathos of the song with an interplay of ballet, interpretive dance and calisthenics.

After a brief, scheduled intermission, actor Loki Miller performed a monologue from Leonard Nimoy’s one-man play, Vincent, accompanied by Olivia Cerullo on keyboard. Miller is masterful at fully inhabiting extraordinary characters, and in this scene he alternated between narrative commentary by Vincent van Gogh’s art dealer brother, Theo, and excerpts from letters written by the great and much-suffering artist himself.

Slow Theatre is presenting a free, public reading of the entire play on June 9, at 2 p.m., at the 1078 Gallery. And this preview was a good example of the theater company’s deliberate approach and its focus on the process as much as the final product.

Lightening the mood considerably was a psychedelic garage-rock opera satire, Khalutu’s Apex Society, performed by Captain Murphy’s Flim Flam Dream Machine. It told the story of Izzy (played Andy Hafer), who emerges from a 20-year coma after being confronted by Death (Latimer in black bobbed wig) and is taken on a tour of the mysteries of the universe by Cosmic Mushroom God Khalutu (Greg Ellery in full hippie regalia). In true garage-rock style, Captain Murphy’s loudly distorted, wah-wah-drenched guitar shenanigans made the lyrics that ostensibly explained Izzy’s cosmic vision completely incomprehensible, but it was a fun and funny ride.

Closing the show was Latimer’s Disaster, which he dedicated to those affected by the Camp Fire, and which is also a work in progress that will become part of 2019’s Butcher Shop festival. The increasingly absurd narrative features commentary from a trio of newspeople—cynical producer Paul (Murphy), anchorwoman Sara (Eliza Odegard), and on-the-scene reporter Rob (Brian Sampson).

The disaster they are reporting on is never defined or described, and Latimer’s dialogue incorporates standard newsie clichés and homilies to illustrate how disaster reporting has become almost formulaic as we become inundated with the daily barrage of increasingly horrifying news. The characters’ eventual breakdown into nonsequitur interjections wrung some ironic but heartfelt laughter from viewers who empathized with their job of maintaining poise in the face of inexplicable cataclysmic events.