Friday, May 16, 2014

Thesis Festival: Lucy at Dell'Arte with Rope and Soup Bowl

Towards the end of their final year, Dell’Arte International School MFA candidates are asked, “what are you compelled by?” For 10 weeks they work in groups to create the pieces that answer that question, according to the school’s director Ronlin Foreman. Then they begin the process of developing these pieces in front of audiences in the yearly Thesis Festival, which is on the Carlo Theatre stage for its second and final weekend beginning Thursday May 22 [2014].

 There are three pieces in this year’s festival, but because of this ongoing process they may be markedly different this weekend than they were in the performances I saw on opening night.

 The stage was a billowing expanse of white fabric with what looks like a much-enlarged bowl from a genteel set of dinnerware in the center. In the bowl were three figures: Declan (Andrew Eldridge), Samantha (Allie Menzimer) and Frank (Emily Newton), the characters and cast of That Sinking Sensation: A Tragicomedy.

 Frank wears a dress but sounds like a man (so he needs lipstick to match his five o’clock shadow, Samantha suggests) and he tells jokes like a cigar-chomping vaudeville comedian. He opened with a nightmare about being inundated in tomato soup. Samantha is a Southern Gothic character whose monologues concerned sickness and death. Declan, outfitted as a bellhop or a classic hotel elevator operator, was silently in charge of the sight gags.

 These three characters “in the soup” combine physical comedy/vaudeville bits with the struggle to cope with existential confinement found in Samuel Beckett plays, or the work of the absurdist playwright Samantha named but dubiously identified as postmodern: Ionesco.

 Through the Seams by Jerome Yorke, Darci Fulcher and Billy Higgins, includes Dell’Arte alums Ruxy Cantir and Grace Booth in the cast. It presented some striking imagery (characters pulling or being pulled by long ropes) in an ambience of darkness and pain, but any narrative intent escaped me completely. Mood, makeup and movement were the abiding impressions.

 Apart from demonstrating physical theatre skills, these two pieces had the virtues of the experimental, confounding expectations while combining the allusive and the elusive. That Sinking Sensation had the additional advantage of being funny, so the narrative ambiguity was less imposing. They were works-in-progress, seeking definition as well as successful moments with that indelible edge of surprise.

 But between these two pieces on the program was ‘Night Mother: A Comedy, created by and featuring Ariel Lauryn and Lucy Shelby. It had the clear unfolding narrative of a play—and a hit play at that.

 Shelby plays Blanche, an actress apparently still living in her hometown whose major triumph is starring in commercials for a car insurance company. Lauryn is Stella, her friend from grade school who is a more conventionally successful actress in New York.

 Stella believes she’s been invited to Blanche’s apartment for a catching-up drink, but arrives to find that Blanche has organized a reading of Marsha Norman’s two-character drama, ‘night, Mother as a kind of audition.  In the audience are Stella’s producer and just about everyone they know in common from school days and beyond.  Their relationship, as flavored by their past involvement with these audience members, fuels a hilarious verbal and physical romp.

 Lucy Shelby is well-named—she has the comic energy of the 1950s TV Lucy, Lucille Ball. Her blond hair flying, she is the engine that pushes events further and further into madness and revelation. But her comedy also serves to create character and drive a story. Trembling with anticipation and her need to enact a fantasy of self-fulfillment, her cheerful frenzy reveals resentments and insecurities. Her attempts to escape the truths of her tangled past only result in her becoming tangled up in a costume on the floor.

 Stella is the reactive force, but Ariel Lauryn uses the subtleties of the straight man as well as understated acting skills to create a dimensional character. Her brittle calm and facade of charmed compliance turn more acerbic and then aggressive under pressure. As the outrageous and yet believable revelations mount up, the two reveal how intertwined their lives remain. That recognition resulted in an ending that, if not entirely happy, was at least ruefully exuberant.

 The 2014 Thesis Festival is performed Thursday through Saturday (May 22-24) at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre at Dell’Arte in Blue Lake. Appropriate for ages seven and up. 668-5663,

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