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Two Examples of Community Theater at Its Best

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Tim Yancey, left, and Mark Kushnir co-star in "The Elephant Man" as Chautauqua Playhouse.

Anyone who still has doubts about the outstanding quality of Sacramento community theater only has to look at two current productions to see how wrong they are.

Chautauqua Playhouse in Carmichael has mounted an excellent production of “The Elephant Man” starring the amazingly talented Mark Kushnir as John Merrick, the title character, and the excellent Tim Yancey as Frederic Treves, the doctor who rescued his from a life as a sideshow attraction. True, a few of the minor roles are delivered in the stagey community theater style of the less-experienced actor, but they do not detract substantially from the overall excellence of the production.

“The Elephant Man” by Bernard Pomerance tells the true story of Joseph Merrick, whose severe physical deformities landed him in a Victorian freak-show, from which he is rescued by Frederick Treves, a young doctor who discovers that beneath the horrible and frightening exterior is an intelligent mind and a sensitive soul. As their friendship develops, both men discover that life is both more beautiful and more cruel than either could imagine.

Kushnir, a handsome young actor, transforms his nearly naked body into the misshapen “monster” without makeup or prosthetics. His head turns, this face transforms and his body contorts into the tortured Elephant Man literally before the eyes as Yancey, as Treves, describes the patient’s affliction. It is a powerful emotional physical change which Kushnir maintains throughout the remainder of the show.

Ariel Elliot is quite convincing, too, as Mrs. Kendal, an actress and socialite who is the first (outside of Treves and Carr Gomm, the hospital administrator) to see Merrick as a human being rather than the monstrous thing society believes him to be. Richard Spierto, as Gomm, is very effective at portraying a man with genuine concern for Merrick’s well-being, who also recognizes the financial value of him to the hospital. Indeed, his letters to the press about Treves and his (expensive) care of Merrick nets the hospital enough donations to keep the patient in style for the rest of his life.

John Walck, a fine actor himself (he was Grandpa in the recent Chautauqua production of “You Can’t Take It With You),” directs with a steady hand and one that never lets the spotlight stray from the center of the story — an innocent and trusting individual at the mercy of forces over which he has no control.

“The Elephant Man” is performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 18, at the Chautauqua Playhouse in the La Sierra Community Center, 5325 Engle Road, Carmichael. Tickets are $21. For more information, call (916) 489-7529 or go to CPlayhouse.org.

Celebration Arts

Celebration Arts is an African American theater company of the first order. Its current production — “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” — is its ninth play in the 10-play  “Pittsburgh Cycle” by multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. Wilson, who was born in Pittsburgh, set about to write a play about the African American experience in each decade of the 20th century. (The only play of the 10 that Celebration Arts hasn’t performed is “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which artistic director James Wheatley said is being planned).

“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is set in a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911, thus representing the second decade of the 20th century. Among its characters are those who are not far removed from the experience of slavery. Two of these characters — Bynum Walker, a mystic clairvoyant who practices the “slave spirituality” called voodoo, and Herald Loomis, a mysterious stranger who shows up looking for his wife, but reveals a nightmarish memory of slave ways — offer a direct link to the Joe Turner of the title.

Bynum (Larry Robertson in a remarkable all-in performance — sings the refrain “Joe Turner’s come and gone, took my man, stole his song and gone” each time someone appears at the door, for no one knows when the not-quite mythical man might appear. There was a real Joe Turner (Joe Turney, actually), who grabbed free black men and forced them to work on his plantation for seven years — all this at a time when slavery was illegal, after Emancipation.

Robertson is a superior actor, and he is matched by the enigmatic Andre Ramsey as Herald Loomis. The scene in which he relives the horror of his imprisonment at the hands of Joe Turner is both frightening and mesmerizing. The play between Robertson and Ramsey here is intriguing, theatrical in the best sense of the word.

Others in the cast are very strong as well, including Phillip Pittman, the only non-African American in the cast, who plays a “finder” of lost people. Although women are relegated to lesser roles by the playwright, they are no less strong in their performances.

“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is performed at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 4. Tickets are $20. For tickets or for more information, call (916) 455-2787 or go to CelebrationArts.net.

Photo by Warren Harrison, Chautauqua Playhouse.

About the author

Jim Carnes

Jim Carnes has masters degrees in English and journalism and is a former National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in popular culture at Stanford University. He has covered Sacramento arts and entertainment for more than 20 years. He currently writes about and reviews theater, dance, music and events in the Sacramento area.

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