Summer stock

Annual theater fest kicks off this week, sans Shakespeare

Jeff Kingsbury (as H.C.) looks on as Noah (Ben Day, left) discusses tough times in the Dust Bowl with Jimmy (Mikey Purdue) in <i>The Rainmaker</i>.

Jeff Kingsbury (as H.C.) looks on as Noah (Ben Day, left) discusses tough times in the Dust Bowl with Jimmy (Mikey Purdue) in The Rainmaker.

Photo By Alan Sheckter

Chico Summer Theatre Festival
The Rainmaker shows Aug. 4-7, and Radioland Riot! shows Aug. 11-14. Both plays run Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., with matinees Saturday & Sunday, 2 p.m., at the Chico Women’s Club. Also, free children’s puppet theater one-hour before each play. Tickets: $15/adults; $5/children (add $5 at door). Available at Lyon Books and
Chico Women’s Club
592 E. Third St.

Chico Women’s Club

592 E. Third St.
Chico, CA 95928

(530) 894-1978

The annual Chico Summer Theatre Festival gets under way tonight (Aug. 4), with a rendering of N. Richard Nash’s irresistible Dust Bowl-era tale of self-pity-turned-to-hope, The Rainmaker.

While its roots are forever linked to Bidwell Park, where it held court as Shakespeare in the Park for 17 years, this is the third year that the summer theater production has been staged at Chico Women’s Club (after a one-year stop over in the City Plaza). It is also the first time that there is nary a Shakespeare play in sight. Producer Jerry Miller still has a deep respect for Shakespeare; the Bard-free lineup is simply an exercise of the freedom that changing the moniker allows.

Ruth Palmerlee, a longtime Chico State costume designer who is listed in the play’s publicity materials as “one of Chico’s best kept theatre secrets,” and whose theater experience goes back four decades, directs The Rainmaker.

The spinster-meets-con-man dramedy “is about what goes on in your thinking and what goes on in your dreaming,” said Palmerlee.

“Lizzie is the hub of the issues and Starbuck [aka The Rainmaker] is the catalyst of change,” Palmerlee said. “There is a terrible drought and cattle are dying; people are pretty locked up in their habits and they are stuck. And Lizzie is resolved that she will be an old maid. Then Starbuck comes in and it’s like lighting a match under a firecracker. He starts to open up everything in everyone.”

Lizzie will be portrayed by Hannah Knight, who has appeared in several local productions including a leading role in A Winter’s Tale at last year’s festival, and along with her two sisters co-fronts the local folk band The Railflowers. “Hannah is an actor whose skills are very developed,” said Palmerlee, who once played the role of Lizzie herself. “She can play the complexities of Lizzie and that’s important. Lizzie is both plain and beautiful, and she does that.”

Jon Kelly, best known in these parts as one half of the Dueling Pianos nightclub act, will play Starbuck. “He’s really dynamic,” Palmerlee said. “He’s in the business; he does acting in New York. He’ll be going back to New York, but is staying in Chico for this.”

Jeff Kingsbury, an old friend of Palmerlee’s, who for 28 years was artistic director at the Capital Playhouse in Olympia, Wash., assumes the role of H.C., the father of the brood. The veteran character actor is in on temporary residency in Chico and jumped at the chance to “get back on the boards,” he said.

Completing the two-play summer series will be Radioland Riot!, a fast-paced, audacious musical—with live musicians—written by Jerry Miller and co-directed by Miller and frequent collaborator Marcel Daguerre.

“Replete with jaunty jingles and those all-too-politically incorrect commercials of yesteryear, the heart of Radioland Riot is the ‘Cavalcade of Stars,’” Miller said of the production, which has a format reminiscent of an avant-garde version of the live-radio show A Prairie Home Companion, including live music and singing by The Railflowers, Samantha Francis and Storey Condos, among others.

“While behind the scenes our ensemble carries on the plot, you’re treated to a top-notch ’40’s-style radio extravaganza,” said Miller.

The cast numbers in the dozens, and features many well-known Chico thespians, including Allen Lunde, Karen Fox, Paulette Prince, Arin Larson, Steve “Obe” Oberlander and Duffy’s Tavern/Pageant Theatre co-owner and long-time Chico actor, Roger Montalbano.

Both productions will be preceded by free kid-friendly puppet shows: Trouble in Olympus during the first week, and Orpheus during week two.