AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Drumming With Anubis” Wildly Entertaining at Left Edge Theatre – by Barry Willis

Mark Bradbury (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

In the galaxy of theater, the convergence of brilliant concept and brilliant execution occurs all too rarely. When it does, it’s a thing of beauty and wonder and a cause for celebration, like a solar eclipse or a blue moon.

At Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre through June 30, David Templeton’s “Drumming With Anubis” is all this and more. A poignant, hilarious exercise in magical realism, it finds a group of middle-aged geeks camped out on the edge of the desert, there for a weekend of male empowerment, macho drumming, personal confessions, and recollections about the glory days of head-banging heavy metal rock. Founded by a recently departed drummer named Joshua Tree, the Neo-Heathen Male Bonding and Drumming Society has gathered in part to lay Josh’s ashes to rest, and to welcome a new member to its fold—a mysterious and reticent fellow they call simply “New Bitch” (Mark Bradbury).

The similarity to the new recruit’s nickname and the name of the Eqyptian god of death and mummification is no coincidence, of course, and the connection becomes increasingly clear as the story moves on—something it does with panache and superb pacing under the direction of David L. Yen, who somehow managed to balance rehearsals and performances of the excellent “Faceless” at 6th Street Playhouse with rehearsals of “Drumming.”

. . . the most near-perfect production you’re likely to see this summer.”

Pallaziol, Sholley, Martinez, and Schloemp (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

Yen may have gone without sleep for weeks while doing this, but the results are exemplary—a very funny production delicately seasoned with moments of profound personal truth. Chris Schloemp stars as the group’s leader, a kilt-wearing electrical contractor named “Chick” who as a not-quite-successful drummer has lived a large part of his life in Josh’s shadow. Anthony Martinez is his sidekick “Bull,” a gruff-voiced barbeque entrepreneur given to dressing like a Harley rider, but a man with deep insecurities about his masculinity. Then there’s “Stingray” (Richard Pallaziol), a twice-divorced alcoholic struggling to hang onto his third wife and his job as a manager of multiple sporting goods stores. Keeper of the group’s rules is Neil (Equity actor Nick Sholley), a “professor of pop culture” with failing knees, who has never recovered from the loss of his lover Alex. Altogether, they are an incredibly talented and superbly-balanced group of performers.

Miller and Martinez (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

The campers poke fun at their own and each other’s foibles, punctuating each heartfelt revelation or silly joke (revealing any would be unfair to playwright and patrons) with drum riffs and chants of “Balls deep!” while mourning the loss of their founder. Into their midst comes Nicky Tree (the feisty Ivy Rose Miller), Josh’s young widow, seeking not only her husband’s pilfered ashes but some substantial psychological restitution from the ragtag assemblage. How she gets it and what they get in return—both as individuals and as a group—is the driving force of the play’s second act, amplified by a continually-more-assertive Anubis. It’s a powerhouse combination of tremendous writing, acting, and direction, all of it on a delightfully plausible set by Argo Thompson, with gorgeous background projections by Schloemp.

Prolific journalist, critic, playwright, and North Bay national treasure, Templeton with this project has ventured out of the autobiographical mode that characterizes most of his prior work. It’s a fantastically successful effort carried out by a troupe of artists who truly understand and embrace his vision. You’ll howl with laughter but moments later may find yourself wiping tears away—an emotional rollercoaster that’s both thrilling ride and rock-solid reward. “Drumming With Anubis” may be the most near-perfect production you’re likely to see this summer.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionDrumming With Anubis
Written byDavid Templeton
Directed byDavid L. Yen
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough June 30th
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “The Nether” Enthralls at Left Edge Theatre – by Nicole Singley

Imagine a virtual world in which you are free to live out your darkest fantasies without repercussion – a perfectly rendered, immersive escape from reality, wherein you can look, speak, and act as you please, your identity securely concealed.

But what makes something real? If a virtual experience has the power to make us think and feel, is it truly artificial? Are our choices ever free from consequence?

By turns philosophical and eerily prophetic, “The Nether” – making its Sonoma County premiere at Left Edge Theatre through March 24th –invites us into such a world, raising these and many other timely questions about morality and culpability in the digital era. But before “logging in,” users be warned: unsettling subject matter is in no short supply here.

Schloemp and Rosa (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

We open on a bleak interrogation room at an unspecified time in the future. Detective Morris (Leila Rosa) sits across from a man in old-fashioned clothing with a guarded demeanor. What was once the internet has evolved into the Nether – an immense network of online realms in which students attend virtual schools, employees telecommute to virtual offices, and people like Mr. Sims (Chris Schloemp) log in to indulge their innermost desires.

Sims – or “Papa,” as his avatar is known – is the proprietor of a realm dubbed the Hideaway, an elaborately designed Victorian home conjuring up a hypnotic nostalgia for simpler times past with its ornate furniture and poplar-lined vistas. Visitors can enjoy a stiff drink, dance along to old records on the gramophone, or molest and dismember prepubescent girls.

Morris is determined to shut the Hideaway down and hold Sims accountable for his gruesome crimes – crimes committed, that is, by and against avatars in the Nether. But has anyone really been hurt? Morris presses Hideaway participant Mr. Doyle (David L. Yen) for incriminating details, her own composure slowly crumbling in the process.

Wright and Spring (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

We cut between the interrogation room and scenes inside the Hideaway, where we meet Iris (the stellar Lana Spring) – Papa’s favorite little girl – and Mr. Woodnut (Jared N. Wright), an undercover agent sent to gather evidence for Morris’s investigation. Mr. Woodnut has honorable intentions, but soon discovers the lines between personal and professional – as well as virtual and actual – are hard to draw inside this realm. He is bewitched by the Hideaway and all it has to offer, becoming himself a reluctant participant in Papa’s twisted world.

…haunting, thought-provoking, and disturbingly relevant…”

It is evident Director Argo Thompson has chosen his cast with care. Schloemp brings grace and finesse to a difficult role, making Sims remarkably sympathetic given his deviant inclinations. Wright is compelling as the well-meaning detective, grappling with unexpected temptation and fearful self-reflection. Yen delivers a surprisingly heart-rending performance as the reticent and wounded Mr. Doyle. Spring’s Iris is ethereal and deeply felt, adding much to the story’s emotional impact. (It’s important to note that Spring is an adult, and that the worst of what happens is not depicted on-stage.)

Rosa is arguably the only weak link. She doesn’t seem at home in her role, and the opening scenes are a bit awkward because of this. Her behavior may be intentional, however, given what we learn later in the show.

Yen (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Thompson’s set anchors the interrogation room at its center, flanked on both sides by rooms within the Hideaway, keeping us tethered to reality as we experience the virtual world. His crew has chosen fitting furniture and props for the Hideaway, and the interrogation room feels adequately cold and futuristic. Schloemp’s projections are an effective enhancement, transforming the interrogation room’s table into an interactive portal to the Nether.

Joe Winkler has set the show to an appropriately ominous soundtrack, from floor-shaking electronic overtures to the crackle and pop of old-timey tunes on Papa’s Victrola. There’s a moment of eerie dissonance near the show’s end when the soundtracks from both worlds collide, as the real and virtual begin to meld.

Act one is weighed down by philosophical quandary and is slow to build momentum. When the pieces begin to fall together, however, the pace accelerates into a second act rich with chilling developments and surprising revelations, and an ending that begs as many questions as it answers.

Though not for the faint-hearted, “The Nether” is a haunting, thought-provoking, and disturbingly relevant ride well worth taking if you can stomach the subject matter. Playwright Jennifer Haley pulls us out of our comfort zone and thrusts us into this dark exploration of a not-so-far-off future that could very well become our own.

ASR reviewer Nicole Singley is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, the Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

 

ProductionThe Nether
Written byJennifer Haley
Directed byArgo Thompson
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough March 24th
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Sex with Strangers” Turns Up the Heat at Left Edge Theatre – by Nicole Singley

How do you define success, and what would you sacrifice to achieve it? Would you be willing to take advantage of others? To trade in your dignity, your privacy, or even your identity? Would you dare to risk a shot at love?

Pondering the price of fame in the digital era, “Sex with Strangers” is the smart, seductive modern romance by Emmy Award-winning House of Cards writer Laura Eason, playing now through February 17th at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre.

Olivia (Sandra Ish) has faded into obscurity following the long-ago release of her modestly successful novel. Badly bruised by mixed reviews and fearing public scrutiny, she continues to write but shares her work with no one. Now in her late thirties, Olivia has settled for a teaching job and relegated writing to a hobby.

Ethan (Dean Linnard) is an up-and-coming writer who, at only 28, has already made a splash on the New York Times Best Seller list and amassed a sizeable following online. Having leveraged his controversial blog about casual sex into two books and an impending movie deal, Ethan’s fame and fortune are on an upward trajectory. Even so, he is restless to escape his reputation as philandering lothario and rebrand himself as a serious author.

Linnard and Ish (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

When a snowstorm leaves these strangers stranded and alone at a remote bed-and-breakfast, sparks fly as flirtatious tension escalates into a passionate affair. But we soon learn their chance encounter wasn’t chance at all, and when Ethan offers to help relaunch Olivia’s career, there is ample room to doubt his motives. Olivia, we learn, has ambitions of her own, and we are left to question who is using whom. Or could this be a genuine connection?

…a steamy, entertaining story full of laugh-out-loud moments…”

Anticipation is half the fun, and the opening scenes are butterfly-inducing as heat and momentum build between Olivia and Ethan. Their banter appears unrehearsed – the pair’s interactions feel alluringly natural, raw, and resultantly real. Eason’s dialogue is sharp and delightfully fast-paced, and these two pros deliver it with ease.

Linnard’s Ethan is irresistibly charming. His coarse manners and frank confidence are at once repulsive and magnetic. There’s a sweet sincerity in his affection for Olivia that helps sustain our hope in the honesty of his intentions, despite the reasons we are given to suspect he can’t be trusted. Ish is equally excellent as voluptuous Olivia, bringing a compelling blend of vulnerability, sass, and surprising strength to the role.

Ish and Linnard (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

The unlikelihood of their pairing makes their romance all the more interesting to watch unfold. What might have been a modest age difference in decades past is now a significant gap made ever broader by the rapid technological advancements we’ve seen in the last twenty years. Ethan’s Wi-Fi dependent world is ruled by an ever-ringing cell phone, overflowing email inbox, and constant public exposure. Olivia’s world – at least when we first meet her – is significantly more quiet. She’s still a fan, after all, of things like privacy and hard copy books.

A subtle power shift occurs as Olivia’s star begins to rise and Ethan’s fades, culminating in a simple, striking moment when the scene is interrupted by a ringing phone. We expect to see Ethan reach into his pocket. But this time, much to our surprise, the call is for Olivia. (Kudos to Sound Designer Joe Winkler for this and other well-timed effects.)

Eason’s ending is powerful and poignant, leaving the door open for us to reflect on what we hope will happen after the curtain falls. We are at once indulged but also wanting more.

Under Diane Bailey’s direction, Linnard and Ish hit it out of the park. Light Designer April George creates a convincing blizzard outside the opening scene’s window, and Argo Thompson’s set provides an attractive and believable backdrop, converting cleanly from a cozy bed-and-breakfast to an urban apartment.

“Sex with Strangers” is a steamy, entertaining story full of laugh-out-loud moments and plenty of food for serious thought. Leave the kids at home, check your inhibitions at the door, and strap in for a night of fun you won’t regret the morning after.

ASR reviewer Nicole Singley is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, the Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

ProductionSex with Strangers
Written byLaura Eason
Directed byDiane Bailey
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough February 17th
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

**** AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK **** Hellaciously Funny “Hand to God” at Left Edge Theatre – by Nicole Singley

It could be argued that few things in life are more worth having than a hearty laugh. If you’re partial to this school of thought, then “Hand to God,” playing now at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre through November 11th, could easily be the most rewarding thing you do this weekend.

Jason (Dean Linnard) is a nice young Christian boy who obeys his mother and the Bible. But everything goes to Hell – perhaps literally – when his hand puppet, “Tyrone,” takes on a startling personality of his own. Tyrone is the polar opposite of his meek and socially awkward puppeteer: loud and obnoxious, wildly vulgar, and jaw-droppingly crude.

What Jason’s mother Margery (Melissa Claire) at first mistakes as a harmless, albeit bizarre, vaudevillian routine soon proves to be something more sinister. Could her son’s unsettling puppet be possessed by the devil?

Linnard and puppet at work in “Hand to God”

Linnard’s performance is nothing short of brilliant. His uncanny ability to switch so convincingly between two diametrically opposed characters at lightning speed – all while effectively maneuvering his right-hand companion – makes it a little too easy to forget Tyrone is really just a puppet.

Director Chris Ginesi has staged an expertly executed and grossly entertaining experience for theatergoers…”

The caliber of Linnard’s performance would easily make him the standout if he weren’t on stage with such a talented group of actors. There is not a weak link in the bunch; their chemistry is excellent and their timing impeccable. The sheer absurdity of the subject matter is made only more hilarious by the intensity and physicality with which they bring it all to life.

Kraines and Claire at work at Left Edge Theatre

Claire is hysterical as Margery, an unraveling widow struggling to distract herself by teaching puppetry to unenthusiastic children in the local church’s basement. Carl Kraines is superb as Pastor Greg, earning as much pity as laughter for his awkward advances toward Margery.

Neil Thollander is a perfect fit for secretly sensitive, bad-boy Timmy, and Chandler Parrott-Thomas adds a touch of much-needed normalcy as Jessica. She surprises us in the end, however, with a heroic act of puppetry guaranteed to make audience members blush.

Director Chris Ginesi has staged an expertly executed and grossly entertaining experience for theatergoers craving something unconventional. Rife with clever dialogue and R-rated humor, the script explores some darker themes without compromising the explosive laughs, turning even the most shocking moments into serious fun. From puppet sex to pedophilia, playwright Robert Askins dares go where others won’t, and the result is thought-provoking comic gold.

Argo Thompson’s ingenious set transitions with ease from classroom to playground and from bedroom to office. His stage is a living entity all its own, much like the puppet it falls prey to in a memorably elaborate set change featuring decapitated Barbie dolls and bloody handprints. The scene plays like a childhood game of “Spot the Differences in These Two Pictures.” Be sure to take in all the thoughtful touches. If the devil is really in the details, Thompson, too, may be possessed.

ASR reviewer Nicole Singley is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

 

ProductionHand to God
Written byRobert Askins
Directed byChris Ginesi
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough November 11th
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!