Arts + Scene » Stage Matters

It’s Not Easy Reliving Bush

Redwood Curtain’s cautionary tale, marriage equality play at HSU


Tisha Sloan, Alissa Barthel and Nathan Emmons in Dusty and the Big Bad World - COURTESY OF REDWOOD CURTAIN
  • courtesy of Redwood Curtain
  • Tisha Sloan, Alissa Barthel and Nathan Emmons in Dusty and the Big Bad World

Dusty and the Big Bad World, now on stage at Redwood Curtain, is loosely based on real events: the 2005 decision by PBS -- under pressure from the Bush administration -- not to air a segment of a children's program (Postcards From Buster) dealing with lesbian parents. Playwright Cusi Cram, who worked for an associated program (Arthur) at the time, engages in some score-settling, puts words of one actual participant in another's mouth and inaccurately impugns the motive of the PBS president (who admittedly is an old acquaintance of mine). But on the whole, Cram uses the situation to create an independent, thoughtful and lively work of theatre that entertains ideas as well as the audience.

First we meet 11-year-old Lizzie Goldberg-Jones (played by Alissa Barthel), who talks into her video camera about why she should win the contest to be on the animated PBS children's show Dusty along with her family: because her little brother really likes it, and "TV is important." It might distract him from being teased about their "two dads."

Next there's Marianne Fitzgibbons (Dianne Zuleger), a sunny but formidable presence who tells us at length how much she loves her new job, which turns out to be secretary of education. Her cheery demeanor toward her troubled secretary Karen (Carrie Hudson) is edged with menace.

Marianne -- whose zealous fundamentalism becomes increasingly clear -- already has her sights on the Dusty episode resulting from Lizzie winning the contest. She means to squelch it and to cancel the series entirely.

This puts the show's producer and self-described paranoid liberal Nathan Friedman (Nathan Emmons) on the bubble, along with the show's protective creator, Jessica Fields (Tisha Sloan).

Playwright Cram gives these characters dimension and individuality, and this superb group of actors gives them even more. Dianne Zuleger inhabits her role to a truly scary extent. Nathan Emmons and Tisha Sloan are immediately convincing, and Alissa Barthel provides the not entirely innocent burst of light that redeems the adult-made muddle. But it's Karen (with her love for Kermit the Frog) who becomes the moral center of the play. Carrie Hudson's compelling performance takes us on that journey.

How all this is a comedy with a partially happy ending is hard to describe. Some invented aspects of the plot are weak, but the script is witty and emotional, with lots of ideas flashing amidst the politics, confessions and intrigue. The characters are believable and memorable.

I felt director Jyl Hewston struck the right tone -- subtle and straightforward, letting the play and the actors carry the evening. Reliving the Bush atmosphere wasn't easy, but worse is worrying about its second coming.

Scenic design is by Daniel Nyiri, lighting by Michael Burkhart, costumes by Laura Rhinehart, sound by Jon Tunney. Dusty and the Big Bad World plays weekends at Redwood Curtain through Nov. 17.

Dusty and the Big Bad World is one of three plays on North Coast stages this fall based on real events, involving similar issues. Eureka High just closed The Laramie Project, about the 1998 torture and death of a gay student that led to the federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2009. The third play is 8, which gets its one and only North Coast staged reading at HSU on Thursday, Nov. 1.

In a 2010 trial, a federal court judge found that California Proposition 8 (passed in 2008) could not amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriages because it violates provisions of the U.S. Constitution. Though the U.S. Supreme Court is yet to weigh in, this case could make same-sex marriage a constitutional right.

That trial is the subject of 8, a play by Dustin Lance Black, whose script for Milk -- the movie starring Sean Penn about San Francisco's Harvey Milk -- won the Academy Award.

After celebrity-rich readings on Broadway and in Los Angeles, the Foundation for Equal Rights granted permission for staged readings throughout North America (and beyond.) The HSU Department of Theatre, Film and Dance pursued and got the opportunity to produce it for the North Coast. Each local theatre gets the spotlight for one night. In the week just before Arcata's turn, there were readings scheduled in Des Moines, Baltimore, Anchorage, Austin and Minneapolis.

As in readings elsewhere, the emphasis is on involving the whole community, beginning with the actors. So at HSU participants include Michael Fields, James Floss, James Hitchcock, Christina Jioras, Susan Abbey, Michael Thomas, JM Wilkerson, Elisa Abelleira, James McHugh, Catherine L. Brown, Sam Machado, Juan Carlos Contreras and Shea King. Clint Rebik directs, with set and lighting by Katie Dawson.

"People need to witness what happened in the Proposition 8 trial," said playwright Black, "if for no other reason than to see inequality and discrimination unequivocally rejected in a court of law where truth and facts matter."

This staged reading is a benefit for the Foundation for Equal Rights. It's followed by a panel that will lead audience discussion. 8 is on the Van Duzer Theatre stage at HSU on Thursday, Nov. 1, at 7:30 p.m. Donation is $5. Box Office: 826-3928. More information:

All three of these plays have at least one real world message: vote.

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