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Second Acts 

Potato Gumbo and Hurricane Diane

click to enlarge Scott "Q" Marcus, Christina Augello and Tasheena Evenson in Potato Gumbo.

Photo by Jaiden Clark, submitted

Scott "Q" Marcus, Christina Augello and Tasheena Evenson in Potato Gumbo.

The journey to try to find the Exit Theatre (890 G St., Arcata) is guided by a mischievous Google Maps and skeptical townspeople convinced we bought tickets online to a San Francisco theater by mistake. But Arcata's newest theater venue exists, marked by a lone banner adorning the wall of the G Street side of the plaza. A doorway above the mattress store reveals a flight of stairs that had me rethinking my heels and, after the white-knuckled handrail ascent, we walked straight into Exit Theatre's newest play Potato Gumbo.

The performance space feels warm and inviting, with a Brick and Fire restaurant feeling, seating arranged for unobstructed sightlines. It's calming in its intimacy with a set design by Christina Augello that capitalizes on the small space with an unexaggerated delineation of the fourth wall and an attention to detail that made everything perfectly ordinary. If it weren't for the light rails and bar, I may have thought to pull books from a backpack to study.

The play in two acts is a quasi-Golden Girls meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with a smidge of On Golden Pond. The story examines what happens when seniors' children become the parents and what life and dreams can look like when the ones around you prepare for yours to end. We meet Gretchen (Christina Augello), an overly truthful and sticky-fingered dreamer with aspirations of traveling to the New Orleans School of Cooking to perfect a recipe for potato gumbo, and her fellow rambunctious assisted living "senior-agers" navigating a life fuller than "just getting old." Gretchen's ride-or-die Thomas (Scott "Q" Marcus) willfully indulges and grounds out Gretchen's antics, which include late night police involvement, "acquiring" other's belongings and unplanned road trips, to the dismay of Gretchen's daughter Barbara (Tasheena Evenson). Thomas' son Jack (Mychal Evenson), however, is more supportive. The pair are accompanied by fellow community members Gail (Ruthi Engelke), a hippie with a knack for arts and crafts, and Jim (Arnold Waddell), a virile man unafraid to show off his attributes in tight Stargazer Lily print pants. Together, they will have their own happy hour cocktail time outside of frustrated administrator Mrs. Holbrook's (Cathryn Noel-Veatch) schedule and simply enjoy life.

Though playwright Jean Ciampi's script is largely cliché and predictable, director Liz Whittemore assembles a cast that authentically reacts in surprise to what the audience already knows and orchestrates their movements with ease. In small theaters, the "rules" of blocking and directing 101 (sightlines, cheating toward the audience, upstaging, projection, etc.) can more freely be broken because the audience is already on stage with the actors. It allows for a more realistic and natural style. Though I wish there was more movement and commitment to random interactions with space, what she accomplishes well is straightforward storytelling. A smaller space makes simple movements look extremely exaggerated; if actors play the space like they are in a 1,000-seat venue, it can feel labored. Hands to the forehead, deep breath chest sighs and agitated rocking to show frustration and anger can be released to make way for just being frustrated or angry without the unneeded tells. Marcus and Augello are brilliant at working the space and rely on simplicity and truth to shine. Likewise, Noel-Veatch is brilliant, delivering her lines with just the right amount contrasting tone and volume to squeeze laughter out of lines. I want to see Waddell in his own show as his timing and confidence deserves bravo and more stage time. Engelke is always generous to her fellow actors with focus and interest in their words, and ability to heighten the scene with her presence.

Potato Gumbo is targeted to a specific demographic — an older audience who may need assistance getting up the damn stairs — but its subject matter, charm and assembly make it more universal and worth the exercise. Just opt for flats.

Exit Theatre's Potato Gumbo continues Friday, Feb. 16, and Saturday, Feb. 17, at 7 p.m., and on Sunday, Feb. 18 at 3 p.m. Visit or get tickets at

What little I knew of Hurricane Diane filled me with excitement and joy: a new branding of a theater, some of the best actors I've seen, a new partnership between companies and a director with an exceptional pedigree who has left me in awe with every past work. The newly coined 5th and D Street Theater's (300 Fifth St., Eureka) inaugural production houses the rebirth of Redwood Curtain Theatre in this show. No pressure. The venue formerly known as North Coast Repertory Theatre is now also home to both NCRT's company and RCT's — hence the new name for the space. The collaboration is immediately apparent when entering. It feels more upscale, focused and rejuvenated, with nuanced changes that shift the energy in big ways. The curtain around the production booth, the removal of the Stage Left side wall, the sweeping of old cobwebs that seemed to always exist on the stage right wall and hanging of framed production posters of both NCRT and RCT, all combine for dramatic results. Even with high expectations, none of it disappoints.

Hurricane Diane is about the God of agriculture, food, wine and pleasure known as Dionysus, aka Bacchus, Evius or Bromius, who has taken the form of Diane (Peggy Metzger), a landscaper focused on ripping out lawns and healing the scars of the earth (curbs and streets) that create disharmony in nature and restore it with permaculture forests. She desires to make a resurgence in devotion by initiating four women to start her cult following and regain power, and so targets the ladies of a cul-de-sac in New Jersey. Carol (Natasha Samuelsen), a businesswoman in compliance for a pharmaceutical company, draws her only joy and satisfaction from reading HGTV magazine, which her neighbor Renee (Cynthia Martells) edits. They are flanked by Beth (Finn Ferguson), who is traumatized by her husband leaving, and Pam (Caroline Needham), a Jersey woman Michelle Visage would adore, complete with the deep accent, animal prints, stiletto nails and sensible platform pumps. Diane conspires to conquer them one at a time through their yards and, uh, flowers.

The acting is simply outstanding. Samuelsen takes a character that could be boring and one dimensional, and breathes such commitment and motivation into her that she is a fully rounded and grounded character whose believability makes her hilarious. It allows her to deliver her lines with surety that generates seemingly effortless comedy with no punchline. Needham could easily fall into the trap of playing a stereotype as opposed to the character. Instead, she uses the stereotype to delve into the world of the person, bringing individuality and depth to what could easily be a poor Snooki impression. Martells' delivery lures the audience into her words to be enveloped in her stories. It is a palpable experience. Even with occasional line lapses, she captivates the audience and ushers us to feel every syllable without being emotionally manipulative. Ferguson creates intrigue in her dramatic pauses and though sometimes their length disrupts the rhythm of the piece, the places she mentally goes entices the audience to want to know more about her. This sets her up for a beautiful monologue that brings empathy, understanding and resolve that balances her choices. The professionalism of these actresses sets Metzger up for success. She can allow these characters to shine and be in the folds of their circumstances, and she can simply be a God. It's her chemistry and dialogue, sometimes written only in her facial expressions, as well as her reaction to lines that display her expertise.

With such powerful performances, it is easy for the observer to get separated from the story and throughline, since we want to dive into each character. Director Cassandra Hesseltine again proves she is a fantastic director by carving out the relationships and interactions of the piece. Making coffee with four women over a kitchen island feel warm, inviting and engaging is extraordinarily challenging. Yet Hesseltine conducts a symphony of richness by focusing on their interactions and using just enough movement to ensure reality and interest. The audience stays committed throughout the piece and doesn't get lost in the story. Because of this, small inconsistencies like playing out to the front yard when describing the back yard is forgiven by the depth of the vivid imagined scenery Hesseltine creates. At one time I looked behind me to see if a tree that was being described had been wheeled into the aisles of the theater. It wasn't.

Thank the gods for sound designer McKenna Hardy. How many times have we been pulled out of a theater's world because of poor sound? From the pre-show recording, the sound balance is perfect and it only gets better. Can other venues please hire this person? Bob Pickering's set design is also again one of the best. Catherine Brown, please change Carol's opening act shoes. However, the way she sculpts the characters costumes with colors against the set lights is gorgeous.

If you love the art of theater in its entirety, not just seeing plays or supporting the community (which is OK, too), I would suggest not missing this — lest you anger the gods.

Redwood Curtain Theatre's Hurricane Diane continues at the 5th and D Street Theater Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through March 3. Visit

Tiggerbouncer Custodio (he/she/they) is an empowered queer Indigenous Filipino artist whose works have been seen on Humboldt stages and elsewhere.


Ferndale Repertory Theatre's production of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder continues Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Feb. 25. Call (707) 786-5483 or visit

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