Here be dragons: Impact fires up fantastical drama

Nov 09

EXTENDED THROUGH DEC. 21!
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Dragon (George Sellner, right) is a dangerous visitor who reenters the life of a woman he once knew (Sarah Coykendall) and her husband (Michael Michalske), while in the background, Boy (Jed Parsario) longs for his own beloved dragon, in the West Coast premiere of The Dragon Play by Jenny Connell Davis in her Bay Area debut. Below: Parsario and Lindsey Schmeltzer are a boy and a dragon in love. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Impact Theatre’s The Dragon Play breathes fire into what, at first glance, appears to be a fairly standard issue drama. Playwright Jenny Connell Davis blends the worlds of sci-fi/fantasy with Sam Shepard with surprising and wonderful results.

In only 80 minutes, director Tracy Ward creates two powerful worlds in which stories begin to bleed into one another. That’s no mean feat in the cramped quarters of La Val’s Subterranean, which offers set and lighting designers the ultimate challenge to turn a basement into a compelling performance space. Catalina Niño (sets) and Jax Steager rise to that challenge, even when the action spills off the stage and into the nether parts of the theater.

There are well-defined realms here, one of which is in some frozen northern state, where a woman (Sarah Coykendall), a librarian, lives with her husband (Michael Michalske) and their young son. Their sturdy home is represented by the kind of dining room that has been filling stage sets and Midwestern homes for a century. The other realm is more nebulous.

In that one, which we are led to believe is in the past, a boy (Jed Parsario) encounters a wounded young girl dragon (Lindsey Schmeltzer), whom he befriends and, in time, falls in love with. As their relationship progresses, we learn more about dragons (there’s something called the Dragon Dance and we aren’t allowed to know about it) and that they live for thousands of years. They have sex, but it’s beyond of realm of understanding.

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Schmeltzer’s performance as the dragon is mesmerizing. She often moves as if she’s performing some sort of dance, and it’s just quirky enough to convey a sense of dragon-ness without having to costume her in some ridiculous way (she worked with movement consultant Erin Mei-Ling Stuart). And Parsario is an understandably confused human boy who is tortured and consumed and transported by his love an otherworldly being.

Back in the snowy wilds, the uneasy marriage of the man and the woman is upended by the arrival of a stranger (George Sellner) from the woman’s past. Coykendall is a tormented wife and mother whom at first seems as if she wants to flee the confines of her domestic life. But when her exit strategy appears in the form of the stranger, we see that her torment is much deeper, and it involves him.

Michalske is eminently believable as the good-hearted, smarter-than-he-seems contractor who values the life he and his wife have made. He understands her and her torment a little more than she thinks he does, but he still doesn’t know the full story. Still, he’s charming, and he has a monologue alone at the kitchen table that turns out to be a show high point.

All the performances are strong, and the actors transcend the confines of the space to give us American wasteland, flight and fantasy. It’s really quite a marvel how much this short play and this astute production convey and convey powerfully. There’s deep feeling and imagination here, humor and sexiness, surprises and satisfaction. In other words, it’s just about a perfect Impact Theatre play.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Jenny Connell Davis’ The Dragon Play continues an extended run through Dec. 21 at Impact Theatre, La Val Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$25. Call 510-224-5744 or visit www.impacttheatre.com.

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