It’s your classic boy-meets-dragon love story. It’s also a stunning Bay Area introduction to the work of Baltimore-based playwright Jenny Connell Davis. After productions in Austin, Texas, and New York City, The Dragon Play now makes its West Coast debut courtesy of Impact Theatre, in the basement of La Val’s Pizza in North Berkeley.
It’s a lovely piece of work: funny and heartbreaking, lyrical without being the least bit abstruse, its timeless fairytale roots remaining grounded in the present day. Marvelously directed by Tracy Ward, who helmed Monica Byrne’s What Every Girl Should Know at Impact last year, it’s the best thing the company’s done in years.
The story is told in two parallel narratives that are linked in both obvious and surprising ways. In a remote and frozen northern region, an already struggling married couple is thrown into turmoil by a mysterious visitor. The husband is a construction contractor, played by Michael Michalske with easygoing charm and underlying frustration about the mixed signals he’s getting from his wife. As portrayed by Impact regular Sarah Coykendall, the wife is fretful and conflicted, all people-pleasing domesticity one moment and lashing out in aggravation the next. George Sellner is unrelentingly intense as the visitor, who’s clearly the wife’s former lover, with a stalking, panther-like walk and a stony stare.
Framed at first as a story the wife is telling—either to herself or to us—the second narrative is more compelling still. A dragon girl rests her wounded wings near a southern town, where she meets an 11-year-old boy (Jed Parsario, eyes wide in wonderment), who shouldn’t be able to see her because “humans only see what they can understand.” But has no trouble reconciling her legendary existence with his modern world of Coors Light and convenience stores. He also, of course, falls in love with her.
Dressed by Kasondra Walsh in a brown jerkin vaguely reminiscent of Peter Pan, Lindsey Schmeltzer is riveting as the dragon girl. She moves with a predatory, animalistic potency, often rolling her shoulders to adjust her invisible wings. Even her smile is unnerving. But she’s also playful and tender with the boy, and watching them navigate their adolescent interspecies romance is spellbinding. It’s touching but also nerve-wracking, always barbed with danger. Is there any possible way this can end well?
Impact’s low-budget staging provides just enough of a suggestion of the unseen magic lurking underneath the story, from Jax Steager’s multihued lights to Sarah Jacquez’s subtle underscoring and more prominent sound effects such as crackling flames and the beating of wings.
The play is just a little over an hour long but is thoroughly satisfying. It’s bittersweet, clever, sexy and ultimately breathtakingly beautiful and disturbing at the same time. Much of the story is about time lost, missed opportunities and roads not taken. Theater fans might want to take that to heart and make sure that missing this show is not something you'll find yourself regretting in days to come.
The Dragon Play runs through December 14, 2014 at La Val’s Subterranean in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit impacttheatre.com.
All photos by Cheshire Isaacs.