Sacramento is culturally blessed in many ways, even if you don’t consider the wealth of cultural offerings across the causeway at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis). For theater, the Sacramento Theater Company regularly offers time-honored chestnuts and occasional G-rated fare, and, in the summer, very few venues can match the professionalism of productions at the Music Circus.
But for consistently high-quality theatrical experiences, the top two companies in town have to be Capital Stage and B Street Theater. The former is now in its 13th year of existence and its seventh at the current location on J Street (after six years of performances on the stage of the Delta King riverboat). B Street existed for 28 years in a pair of stages off of 27th and B Streets before moving, in January, to its $29 million digs in the Sofia Tsakopoulos Center (on 27th and Capital).
The two companies share one characteristic: Whatever play they are presenting will be produced professionally and with integrity. But they also differ considerably in the nature of their offerings, and the current production at Cap Stage and the recently-concluded opening production at B Street’s new home serve as good examples of the difference.
Capital Stage is the company that constantly pushes the envelope. A Cap Stage production is going to take you into difficult, even uncomfortable, places. It will make you think, or force you to ignore your thoughts if the issues presented in the plays are either too painful or beyond your capacity for comprehension. The current play in production at the theater is an example.
“The Arsonists” is a one-act play by Jacqueline Goldfinger. It is one of the National New Play Network rolling world premieres that are sometimes debuted by the company. The play is small (two characters, one set design) with relatively little action and not a whole lot of dialogue. The playwright provides this setup in her script: “This is a love letter to my father. He is not dead. It’s a shame that folks hold off ‘til somebody dies to say how much they mean to ‘em. I’m gonna go ahead and do it now.”
The two characters in the play are a father and daughter who, we quickly learn, burn buildings so their owners can collect insurance. That information has little to do with the interaction between the two that takes place during the play’s 65 minutes. In fact, the story, such as it is, has very little to do with the work the two engage in. Instead, “Arsonists” is about a daughter struggling over the loss of both of her parents and a father’s desire to leave his daughter with a way to face the future.
The Cap Stage production is directed by Gail Dartez. It features a set design by Brian Harrower (who also provided important lighting design), music by Sam Misner, and sound design by Ed Lee. The father is played by Rich Hebert. Megan Wicks plays the daughter. Both give excellent portrayals. Ms. Wicks, in particular, has a powerful monologue late in the play that was, unfortunately, blocked out of the view of some in the audience (downstage right in front of a row of audience seats).
“Arsonists” is a hard play to watch, but it is even more difficult to contemplate when it is over. At the opening night performance my wife and I attended, audience members were quizzing each other over what had really happened and what it all meant. Such conversations are not unusual following a Cap Stage play. It’s that kind of a company. You go to Cap Stage to be intrigued more than to be entertained. The best of their productions are a good mix of the two. Many plays are loaded with a dark humor that turns more somber in the second act. Some are intentionally disturbing, or angry, or revolutionary. Most feature the things that humans do only when they are placed in extreme conditions or are facing unusual circumstances.
“Arsonists” is a more simple play in that respect. It just reflects the relationship of a father and a daughter who are trying to find a path to reconciliation and resolution. They share memories and sing songs together. They work at preparing the materials for their next arson. They laugh. They cry.
In a brief conversation with Ms. Goldfinger after the opening night performance, she revealed that she intended the play to be a way to find peace in her own father’s likely death, if, as expected, it comes soon. That desire might be universal or it might be highly personal. To the extent it is the former, “Arsonists” may resonate with audiences. To the extent it is the latter, it may leave audiences somewhat disengaged. I found myself in the latter group. In that respect, I was disappointed. Little really happens in “Arsonists” beyond the aforementioned desire of the two characters to find a way to say goodbye. This is not a play that offers a lot of entertainment value. And it might not work all that well for many as a thought-provoker either. But, to the extent it emphasizes thought-provocation over entertainment, it definitely represents what Cap Stage is all about.
B Street rarely takes on the darker side of live theater. It has established its identity as more of a mainstream professional company. B Street productions may elicit some thoughts for conversation after a performance, but they are more likely to offer escapist entertainment as the primary goal. “One Man, Two Guvnors,” which opened the Sofia and just closed earlier this month, is an extreme example.
The play, penned by Richard Bean, is as silly and pointless a creation as you are likely to see on any stage. It includes no small amount of pure slap-stick, including a recurring gag in which an elderly, sight-impaired, food server falls down a stairway, and a story that only makes sense if you want it to. Otherwise, it’s just a laugh-filled tour-de-force that was as good a production as either company is likely to offer for a long time.
“One Man” included a 14-member cast and a three-member band that played intermittently throughout the show (with some of the actors occasionally joining to sing or play an instrument). The production, skillfully directed by B Street founder Buck Busfield, was the perfect way to inaugurate the new theater. Peter Story (the “One Man” of the title) led the cast, which included many B Street regulars (Kurt Johnson, Jason Kuykendall, Elisabeth Nunziato, Dave Pierini, Greg Alexander, John Lamb, Stephanie Altholz, Amy Kelly, and Tara Sissom). Mr. Story was the glue that held the madcap nonsense together, but everyone merits a share of the credit for delivering the vapid plot as a perfect confection of frivolity.
B Street may never again reach the heights/depths of empty-headed pure entertainment excellence again, but it will often offer equally skillful professional productions that are heavy on entertainment with perhaps a dose or two of thought-ticklers in the mix. And Capital Stage will certainly continue to offer mind-bending productions of plays that have something to say and a lot to think about. That they will also, not infrequently, be highly entertaining as well will speak to the magic of all great theater.
And as to great theater, in these two companies, Sacramento has it in abundance.
Performances of “The Arsonists” continue at Capital Stage through April 15. Tickets and information are available at the theater box office (2215 J Street), by phone (916-995-5464) or online (www.capstage.org).