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Creepy Characters and Clowns

Dell'Arte International's 2013 thesis festival

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This coming weekend, May 16-18, graduating Master of Fine Arts students at Dell'Arte International School present the culmination of their thesis projects: the second and final weekend of three plays which they devised and perform. It's the end of a process that involved weekly presentations to their academic advisers, writing a statement of purpose and a script to carry it out, and last weekend's first performances in front of audiences. Then earlier this week, they faced the faculty for critiques, followed by a few days to revise and refine their pieces.

So elements of these shows, billed as The Mothership: Thesis Festival 2013, are probably going to be different this weekend from what I saw on opening night. These pieces are also different in kind from last spring's thesis shows, one of which was based on a story and poem by Edgar Allen Poe, and the other on a real if obscure historical person (Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to intentionally tumble down Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive). In contrast, none of the shows this year have an identified source.

The first piece is Potato, devised and played by Janessa Johnsrude, Anson Smith and Kolleen Kintz. It began with a projected star field and a recording of legendary astronomer Carl Sagan talking about the multitude of discrete worlds in the universe. We were then presented with three human characters confined (for some reason) to a seedy motel room. Two of them are carnival performers, who eventually reveal their knife-throwing act. Their relationships seemed more improvised than explored, but that's as solid as the story gets.

It was ambitious and inventive, edgy at times, with skillful physical movement and stagecraft. Actors of one gender playing stereotypical characters of the other oscillated between being marginally meaningful and an amusing if pointless display of virtuosity. While incidents were clear enough, even if uninteresting beyond their execution, I found the piece as a whole incoherent. If there was more than a trivial relationship to what Sagan was saying (in several ghostly phone calls as well as the introduction), it eluded me. So did the significance — or humor — of a giant potato.

In Summit Fever, three clowns (played by Ruxy Cantir, Anthony Arnista and Amelia Van Brunt) were making their 78th and 79th attempts to climb Mount Everest. Since clowns naturally have an adversarial relationship with the world (an insight I owe to Dell'Arte's Lauren Wilson), the struggles with wind, snow and clashing personalities were well conceived and played. With the exceptions of a misplaced sight gag (made famous by Groucho and Harpo on either side of a mirror) and a deft physical joke repeated too many times without variation, this was the simplest and most successful piece.

Because I Love You Most of All is another creepy sex and violence mashup, with a sheriff, a young woman, an enigmatic old lady and her sinister henchman, all in a David Lynch country-and-western dreamscape. Again, the performances by Jacob Trillo, Meridith Anne Baldwin, Ryan Musil and Lisa McNeely were skillful, but again it seemed like disembodied bits and characters, as if churned up by late night channel surfing. It's certainly not the fault of the students who worked on these pieces for weeks, but because of the ugly revelations coming out of Cleveland and Shasta, I found the acts of man-on-woman violence of this and the first piece especially disturbing.

Michael Foster designed the lighting, Daniel Spencer is technical director and Lydia Foreman the costume coordinator for all three shows. The Mothership: Thesis Festival 2013 is onstage at Dell'Arte Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. www.dellarte.com.

Meanwhile, as the school year ends at College of the Redwoods, there is mixed news. As noted in Stage Matters ("40 Years of Astonishment," March 14), the Humboldt Light Opera Company's anniversary concert featured a plea and a petition to save CR's music courses, many of which were slated to end this spring. Recently CR announced that these classes are back on their schedule, open to CR students for credit, but also to community members. However, there are no drama courses on the fall schedule for the main Eureka campus. A new performing arts center will open, although it's being criticized as inadequate for theatrical productions ("Re-imagining CR," April 11).

Coming Up: To complete their first year's work, Dell'Arte International students present The Finals, a set of 10-minute plays that audience members can "grade," May 23-25 at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre. www.dellarte.com.

Next up at North Coast Repertory Theatre is Next to Normal, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, with mental illness as its subject and a rock score driving its style. Directed by Tom Phillips with musical direction by Dianne Zuleger, it features Andrea Zvaleko, Gino Bloomberg, Kevin Sharkey, Brandy Rose, Luke Sikora and Alex Moore. It opens May 23. www.ncrt.net.

Not opening in July is the previously announced musical Boeing, Boeing at Ferndale Repertory Theatre. However, the musical Victor/Victoria will open there as scheduled on July 19. www.ferndalerep.org.

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