Review: “I and You” & “Beautiful Monsters” in Santa Rosa

Left Edge Theatre officially opens it season with a pair of one-acts running now through September 19 at its Studio Theatre at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa.  The local premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s I and You is paired with the world premiere of Beautiful Monsters by Kelly Gray. Left Edge describes Gray’s piece as an “an experiential play about the confines of technologies and the human heart in a modern era.” Argo Thompson directs both plays.

There’s little surprise in Gunderson’s two-hander about the relationship between teenagers thrown together on a school project until… there is.

Anthony (Manny DeLeon) arrives at the door of the bedroom of Caroline (Dale Leonhart) and announces he’s volunteered to work with Caroline on a school project about Walt Whitman. Caroline, who’s been home ill for some time, is resistant to the point of rudeness. Her petulance might be explained away by the seriousness of her illness, but Theatre 101 dictates that two people argue about things (like music or Pop Tarts) before they admit they like each other, as they do here. But then… well, far be it for me for me to be a spoiler.

Manny DeLeon, Dale Leonheart

I saw a Zoom presentation of this play earlier in the year and can say that a live, in-theatre production serves the piece better. A story about a connection between two people in one room really needs two people in one room to pull it off. Leonheart does well as the prickly Caroline, but the adversarial relationship between her and Anthony weakens a bit quickly. The show’s stated running time of 75 minutes indicates cuts may have been made which might account for this.  

DeLeon’s Manny arrives all chipper and earnest and stays that way. I would have liked to have seen a bit more variance in his delivery, but even that wouldn’t overcome the standard adult playwright tendency to have teenagers struggling with adolescent angst say things in a play that would never be said in real life.

I don’t know what the rehearsal process was for this production but I’m not sure running it in tandem with a second play, thereby splitting the director’s focus, worked in its favor.

But then, there’s that ending…

That second play, Beautiful Monsters, really isn’t a play per se, but more of a performance piece on the effect the pandemic’s had on our humanity. Running about 45 minutes in length, it contains music, dance, acrobatics, projections, short scenes, and snippets from a few well-known songs.

John Browning, Jakie Threllfall, Zachary Hasbany, Grace Kent, Taylor Diffenderfer

A talented ensemble of five (John Browning, Taylor Diffenderfer, Zachary Hasbany, Grace Kent, Jackie Threlfall) does a little bit of everything in this ‘theatrical obituary for 2020’. Strong visuals hold the series of vignettes together, but my reactions to the individual components varied from “This is something I can imagine attending in the basement of a Berkeley pizzeria.” to “What the hell was that?” There were reflective bits on loneliness, swipes at the influence of technology as a means of communication, and an uplifting ending as a final F-you to 2020.

Beautiful Monsters is a mixed bag designed to appeal to those open to experiencing something other than conventional theatre. It is decidedly different from what one usually sees on our local stages. What isn’t avant garde is its premise that 2020 sucked. There’s something we can all agree on.

‘I and You’ and ‘Beautiful Monsters’ run live through September 19 at Left Edge Theatre. 50 Mark West Springs Rd., Santa Rosa. Fri–Sun, 7pm; Sun., 2pm. $22 – $44. Available for streaming through June 20 for $9.99. 707.546.3600.

Proof of COVID vaccination or a negative COVID test result within three days of selected performance required to attend, and audience members must mask while indoors for the duration of the performance.

Photos by Katie Kelly

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