By Lynn Venhaus
Every so often, an unusual play debuts in St. Louis that is such a delicious mix of sweet and salty, sharp and tangy that one devours every word. “Wildfire” is one such experience.
Produced by Upstream Theater, the 2012 unconventional French Canadian one-act play “Le Brasier” by Montreal playwright David Paquet has been translated by Leanna Brodie.
I suspect Brodie’s work is faithful to the original’s spirit, and along with the dramaturg by Clare Fairbanks, a clever blend of pungent, absurd humor in the vein of legendary Firesign Theatre in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s for the first two scenes and a heated “Dateline” scenario for the finale.
Upstream, as they often do, is presenting the U.S. premiere of this original and quite engaging surreal comedy-drama. But instead of their usual venue, the Kranzberg Arts Center, they move to larger digs at The Marcelle, which is an advantage for the set and lighting.
Under artistic director Philip Boehm’s pivotal direction, we’re led through Paquet’s fertile imagination, game for the detours and intersections, eager for the ‘a-ha moment’ each scene reveals. Without spoiling too much, every segment focuses on peculiar people and items with a key tiny thread.
The dialogue (with mostly monologues) is delivered with fervent conviction by a trio of highly skilled performers, who crisply capture all the nuances. Six eccentric characters are played by the splendid Nancy Bell, Jane Paradise and Tom Wethington, the who are remarkably nimble in their interactions. Their rhythms for each character, both separately and together, is a marvel to watch.
Bell’s virtuoso fire-and-ice performance as Caroline in the third scene, “The Fever,” conveying a repressed woman’s sexual awakening in an alarming way, is a master class in storytelling. Bell is always compelling in parts large and small, but this monologue of temptation, desire and regret raises the bar quite high to start the year.
Paradise and Wethington are daffy and charming as a pair of socially awkward adults, Callum and Carol, who find each other in “The Dragons.” They’re so likable that they make their strange behaviors endearing.
With “The Bonfire,” the play opens with all three playing neurotic adult triplets – Claudette, Claudine and Claudia — each with their own obsessions and tics that call their sanity into question.
Michael Heil’s scenic design, with its eerie black and red emphasis, mysteriously sets the stage and draws us into this bizarre world, expertly lit by Tony Anselmo from Steve Carmichael’s lighting design. That color scheme is carried through in Laura Hanson’s costume design.
Also noteworthy are Sleepy Kitty’s graphic art, projection design by Traci Lavois Thiebaud, sound design and music compositions by Anthony Barilla and Jenny Smith’s props, including an antique gilded birdcage.
“Wildfire” glows with the heat of discovery, releases a kinetic energy with surprise revelations and pops with dark humor. If you embrace quirky, this is a must-see.
“Wildfire” is performed Friday through Sunday from Jan. 24 to Feb. 9 at The Marcelle, For tickets or for more information, visit www.upstreamtheater.org
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.