The Performant: Super Freaks

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Thunderbird Theatre and Foul Play serve it up weird
 
Like swallows returning to Capistrano, there are certain annual events you can count on to lift the spirits and brighten an otherwise soggy outlook. One such anticipated delight is Thunderbird Theatre’s yearly production of an ensemble-created original comedy. Mavens of the shameless spoof, the fabulous T-birds have sent-up pulp detective fiction, lucha libre wrestling, pirate intrigues, Citizen Kane, Conan the Barbarian, vampire romance, and creepy office politics in variously hysterical ways, and a summer pilgrimage to their shows is always effort well-rewarded.

This year’s Thunderbird Special was “SaltyTowers" (the run ended July 23) -- a goofy mashup of Greek mythology and the best BBC comedy show ever to feature the line “don’t mention the war.” The opening sequence, involving a traditional chorus, established the basic plot, but it was the next scene, set in the lobby of the hapless, underwater hotel that established the funny. As a string of minor gods, mortals on-the-lam, and a beleaguered mob boss-styled Zeus check-in to Poseidon’s realm, they were waited on by a Portuguese man-o-war, a Dolphin, and Poseidon himself: a world-weary deity in an ill-fitting suit, married to Medusa -- a woman for whom the phrase “my little nest of vipers” could actually be taken for an endearment.

The tangled fishing line of a plot might have lost direction now and again, but the buoyant silliness of the Thunderbird crew was unsinkable. Brandon Wiley played a scantily-clad Dionysus with hedonistic abandon; Neil Higgins’ swinging socialite Hermes was equal parts Oscar Wilde and Eddie Izzard; Analisa Svehaug channeled Connie Booth as “Dolly,” a matter-of-fact dolphin receptionist-cum-waterpark
performer; and Thunderbird regular Shay Casey’s Zeus, “a big God with big needs,” nevertheless seemed strangely unflapped by the temporary loss of his tender bits in a mishap involving an angry crustacean (Gilbert Esqueda). Weird science alert: did you know the sting of a Portuguese man-o-war can cause an orgasm? To find out how, you’ll have to see it for yourself.

Meanwhile, across the hallway of the EXIT Theatreplex, an entirely different brand of weird is getting a test-drive at Foul Play’s premiere of Nikita Schoen’s “The Left-handed Darling”. Inspired in part by the imitable Tod Browning film, “Freaks,” Schoen’s first foray into playwriting is tinged with longing, deformity, and a calmly rational madness that doesn’t so much spiral as glide smoothly forward into the dark.

The central character, Calliope (AmandaOrtmayer), is the young daughter of former sideshow performers, Phillip and Constance Darling (Don Wood and Kimberly Maclean). Raised in isolation by her well-meaning yet physically challenged parents (they are unhappily co-joined), Calliope amuses herself by creating hybrid creatures from the body parts of the animals her father “preserves” in jars.

Starved for companionship, she falls in with a group of carnival freaks, played with delicate empathy by Wood, Maclean, Mikka Bonel, and Sean Owens, with a suitably creepy Mikl-em as their barker/overseer, Sugarchurch. Surreal flourishes such as the mysterious puppet entity, Dr Chang, a hauntingly lifelike parasitic twin, Don Seaver’s dissonant soundscape, and a stellar courtroom scene staged by the sideshow performers, create an atmosphere of thoughtful unease that lingers long after the final bow.

THE LEFT-HANDED DARLINGThrough Aug. 13
EXIT Theatre
156 Eddy, SF
(415) 673-3847
www.sffringe.org

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