For seven years, the Dragon Theatre was a fixture on the edge of downtown Palo Alto, its 40 or so seats stuffed into a storefront next door to a pricey restaurant whose name rhymed with pompous. Across the street was a Caltrain parking lot, while around the corner, newly minted computer science grads from MIT and Stanford coded wicked cool, seriously evil software for a company that sold its top-secret wares to the NSA and CIA. An unlikely location, perhaps, for a black-box theater specializing in intimate dramas and light comedies, but founder Meredith Hagedorn (the word "dragon" is unscrambled from most of her last name) and her supportive board threw themselves into the quixotic enterprise as if their address was on 42nd Street rather than Alma.
Now the Dragon is actually on Broadway, albeit in Redwood City, and its new home could not be more different. Its neighbors include a score of movie theaters, the venerable Fox, dozens of affordably priced restaurants and a nearby philanthropic investment firm that funds organizations devoted to "financial inclusion" and "governmental transparency." All in all, it's a move up. Take that, Shallow Alto.
Inside, though, the new Dragon is less audience friendly than the old space, as a recent play on opening weekend made clear. While the ceiling is higher and the room itself is more spacious, the layout is odd, leaving the audience with poor sight lines of the action taking place just steps away. The best seats might have been at dead center, but an aisle occupies that precious real estate. During the sparsely attended show I saw last Sunday, I watched audience members moving their heads from side to side throughout the performance to get a better glimpse of the play before them, even though no more than one or two rows separated them from the actors.
Realizing I was going to struggle to see the actors perform from my seat in the second row, I retreated to the back row before the house lights dimmed. It was better up there because of the height of the risers, but I still couldn't see the main prop in the first scene (a television set placed near the edge of the stage) until I noticed it being removed for scene two. For act two, I moved to the extreme left side of the house, which was better for sight lines but worse for the blocking on the stage, which appeared to have been designed for the center of the house, which, alas, is where the aisle is. While I appreciate the fact that the Dragon is trying to make the best of a space not designed for a theater, they really need to figure this out.
Just as bad was the sound, which careened off the north wall, a floor-to-ceiling expanse of painted cinderblock. No doubt black curtains or other sound deadening devices have been ordered or are anticipated once the theater finishes its fund-raising drive (the good news is that effort is going well), but as I write this on a Sunday evening, my ears are still ringing from a show I saw six hours ago.
And what of the Dragon's first play in its new space? Sorry to sound like a scold, but After Ashley is a preachy mess, riddled with continuity holes and peopled by characters whose motivations are insufficiently established and barely developed. Written by Gina Gionfriddo, the play was directed by Dale Albright, who also performs the role of Alden, an education reporter whose wife, Ashley (Hagedorn), is murdered early in the first act.
Sean Gilvary as Justin Hammond. Photo by James Kasyan
Ashley is a pot smoking layabout who watches way too much self-help TV and wants her only son (an accident, she confesses to the impressionable 14-year-old) to avoid the mistakes she's made in her life. Fast-forward three years and Justin's still a basket case from her death. Meanwhile, dad has written a best-selling book, so it's off to TV land, where we learn that television shows routinely capitalize on the misfortunes of others, and that the producers of such dreck are soulless heels. Heaven forfend.
Lest it go unsaid, rather than watch an exposé of the obvious, it would have been nice to get to know Ashley and Alden's pathologically honest son, Justin (Sean Gilvary) better, as well as the older goth girl, Julie (Caitlyn Tella), who befriends and beds him. It was fun to watch this pair trade insults, as well as witness their interactions with Justin's dad, who despite his liberal pretentions is ultimately as morally bankrupt as his silver-tongued producer, David (Evan Michael Schumacher). Instead, we get a side plot about mom's secret porn habit that climaxes, if you will, with the entrance of Roderick (Tim Garcia), whose performance was so overwrought, I almost headed for the exit.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses opens in April. That should solve the problem of suffering through mediocre content. Here's hoping the Dragon gets the sight lines and acoustics in a better state by then, too.
After Ashley runs through February 17, 2013 at the Dragon Theatre in Redwood City. For tickets and information, visit dragonproductions.net.