Onstage confections

Sweet drama at Midtown’s tiny Thistle Dew Dessert Theatre

Mark Espinosa as Duvid and Jessica Mayhew as Lusia in the current Thistle Dew production, <i>A Shayna Maidel</i>.

Mark Espinosa as Duvid and Jessica Mayhew as Lusia in the current Thistle Dew production, A Shayna Maidel.

You’ve heard of microbreweries and boutique wineries? Think of the Thistle Dew Dessert Theatre as a kind of equivalent. It is very possibly the smallest theater in town: It seats only 27, expandable to a whopping 29 if some alternate stage area on the audience’s right is sacrificed.

And the Thistle Dew stage measures roughly 16 feet by 22 feet, about the size of a bedroom.

“It’s the smallest, I think,” said the Thistle Dew’s artistic director and head honcho, Tom Kelly. “But we once had 17 people dancing on the stage. It was tight, but the choreography was well-done.” More recently, Kelly has set an arbitrary limit of six actors. “It’s far too confusing to have more in such a small area, with a small audience,” he said.

The theater is located several steps below street level, in the lower portion of a Victorian home built in 1894. Sacramento homes were built with the living space a few feet above ground level back then because floods were comparatively common in those days.

As dams and levees gradually reduced that danger, the downstairs space in what is now the Thistle Dew hosted a succession of businesses: a real-estate office, a surveyor’s office, a sandwich shop and a cafe. The building was pretty run-down by the early 1990s, when Kelly bought it.

The theater took over the space in 1996. Given its petite seating capacity and Kelly’s upscale preferences in programming, it’s evolved into a something akin to a theater club. The typical Thistle Dew audience includes a high percentage of actors, insiders and literary types, and that’s just fine with Kelly. His programming, particularly in the last couple of years, has tilted toward Irish plays by several authors, South African playwright Athol Fugard’s neo-Greek tragedy Dimetos (in what apparently may have been a West Coast premiere) and Neil LaBute’s bleak trio of one-acts, Bash.

Give ’Em Hell, Harry, a one-man show featuring Joe Larrea as former President Harry S. Truman, also did well for the Thistle Dew. Another one-man historical drama about John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in a theater, enjoyed a long run, with actor Bill Voorhees as Booth.

Kelly’s personal favorite was a production of The Kiss of the Spider Woman featuring Dan Slauson (who also was featured in a memorable local production of Angels in America) and Gabriel Montoya.

Another favorite—and the show that’s generated the greatest demand for tickets at the tiny theater—was the recent production of poet and playwright Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, which played to capacity audiences for a little more than two months. “We turned away eight or nine people every night,” Kelly recalled.

This is all the more unusual because Under Milk Wood is a decidedly literary piece; it originally was written as a radio play, and the sound of the words and the alchemy of the writer’s Welsh background form a critical part of the appeal. “It’s not often attempted because it’s so hard to do,” Kelly said. “Director Maggie Upton did a magnificent job and made it look easy.”

Kelly’s not averse to bringing back a show that he likes that also does well at the box office. Under Milk Wood will be back in September. Kelly also has programmed Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales for December, with Upton directing.

Currently onstage is A Shayna Maidel, a drama concerning two sisters and the Holocaust, which runs through June 21. Taking over June 27 is Lovers: Winners and Losers by Irish writer Brian Friel, best known for his memory play Dancing at Lughnasa. In August, the Thistle Dew will host Nighthawks and The Night Café by Evan J. Blake, two short plays based on a very popular painting by Edward Hopper depicting an ordinary 1940s New York restaurant at night.

An evening of 15- to 30-minute plays by local writers is scheduled for mid-November. Kelly said he’s looking for “something that grabs me in the first few pages” when he’s reading an original script.

The theater runs on a very modest budget. “To tell you the truth, it breaks even,” Kelly said. “We pay the actors a couple of bucks, we pay for the desserts and the coffee, and that’s about it. We don’t do any advertising.”

And about those desserts, which are part of the theater’s name, Kelly started out making them himself. When that proved too time consuming, he fetched goodies from upscale bakeries—but noticed that most theater patrons ate only half a portion. “I guess the desserts were too rich or no good,” he said. Nowadays, he picks up frosted cakes and other goodies from the Costco bakery, “and virtually everything is consumed. People love the desserts. I also always have fresh fruit for people who can’t eat the desserts.”