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On the Edge 

Thesis Fest experiments at Dell'Arte

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Toward 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 pieces that answer that question, according to the school's director, Ronlin Foreman. Then they develop these pieces in front of audiences at the annual Thesis Festival, which is on the Carlo Theatre stage for its second and final weekend beginning Thursday, May 22.

There are three pieces in this year's festival. Because of the ongoing process, this weekend's performances may be markedly different from the ones I saw on opening night.

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

Frank wore a dress but looked like a man (Samantha suggested he needs lipstick to match his 5 o'clock shadow), and he told jokes like a cigar-chomping vaudevillian. He opened with a nightmare about being inundated with tomato soup. Samantha was a Southern gothic character whose monologues concerned sickness and death. Declan, outfitted as a bellhop or a hotel elevator operator, was silently in charge of the sight gags.

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

Through the Seams by Jerome Yorke, Darci Fulcher and Billy Higgins included 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 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 played Blanche, an actress apparently still living in her hometown, whose major triumph is starring in commercials for a car insurance company. Lauryn was 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. Assembled as an audience are Stella's producer and just about everyone they both know from school days and beyond.

Their relationship, flavored by their past involvement with these audience members, fueled a hilarious verbal and physical romp. Lucy Shelby is well named — she had the comic energy of Lucille Ball. Her blond hair flying, she was the engine that pushed events further and further into madness and revelation. But her comedy also served to create character and drive a story. Trembling with anticipation and her need to enact a fantasy of self-fulfillment, her cheerful frenzy revealed resentments and insecurities. Her attempts to escape the truths of her tangled past only resulted in her becoming tangled up in a costume on the floor.

Stella was the reactive force, but Ariel Lauryn used the subtleties of the straight man as well as understated acting to create a dimensional character. With a self-contained stance and wary smile, her brittle calm and facade of delighted compliance turned more acerbic and then aggressive. As the outrageous and yet believable revelations mounted, the two realized how intertwined their lives remained. That recognition resulted in an ending that, if not entirely happy, was at least ruefully exuberant.

The 2014 Thesis Festival will be performed Thursday, May 22 through Saturday, May 24 at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre at Dell'Arte in Blue Lake. Appropriate for ages 7 and up. 668-5663, www.dellarte.com.

Coming Up

The musical Les Miserables opens Thursday, May 22 at 8 p.m. at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Directed by Calder Johnson, with musical direction by Elisabeth Harrington and Nanette Voss-Herlihy, it features Dan Stockwell, Craig Benson, Jo Kuzelka, Greta Stockwell and Voss-Herlihy. 442-6278, www.ncrt.net.

Aria da Capo by Edna St. Vincent Millay is performed by 12 Northcoast Preparatory Academy students directed by Jean Bazemore at the Arcata Playhouse on Monday, May 26 at 8 p.m. It is a benefit for a theatre exchange program with a school in Japan where the NPA students, who were studying Japanese theater in Kyoto and Tokyo, recently performed this play. A $10 donation is suggested but not required.

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