PICTURED: From left: Jessi May Stevenson , Ron Feltner and Susan Muhrer in Rapture, Blister, Burn. Photo courtesy of Brian Stetham Photography

by Emily Dodi

Two whip-smart productions prove that live theater in Ventura County is not only back, it’s better than ever. Rapture, Blister, Burn at Santa Paula Theater Center through Nov. 28, and Severance Play at The Elite through Nov. 21, signal more than a reopening. They feel like a reset. 

A Pulitzer Prize finalist, Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn wrestles with questions about paths not taken and the price we pay for the decisions we make. Jessi May Stevenson stars as Catherine, a famous feminist author who moves back to her childhood home after her mother (Susan Muhrer) suffers a heart attack. Catherine reunites with Gwen and Don Harper (Rosie Gordon and Ron Feltner), college friends with whom she shares a complicated, one might say scorched, history. Before long the small talk burns away to reveal deep-seated emotions that no amount of time has been able to extinguish.

Gionfriddo’s characters wrestle with some of life’s biggest questions; namely, what would happen if you could have a do over? The tautly funny script is punctuated with contemplations on feminist theory from Betty Friedan to Phyllis Schlafly that give rise to fascinating conversations and plenty of unexpected revelations. 

With Stevenson as the play’s center, Feltner’s Don is the quintessential man-child while Muhrer strikes the right tone as a mom watching her grown daughter struggle with life’s choices. The fantastic Erin Hollander is Avery the babysitter (aka the mature one) and Gordon gives Gwen, a woman who’s made all the “safe choices,” a nice hint of danger. (One hopes to see a lot more of relative newcomers Hollander and Gordon on the Ventura stage.)

One doesn’t even need to look at the program to know that Rapture, Blister, Burn is directed by Taylor Kasch. Simply put, every character and plot point just seem more interesting with Kasch at the helm. The gifted crew also includes producer Leslie Nichols, lighting designer Gary Richardson, set designer Mike Carnahan, costumer Barbara Pędziwiatr, prop mistress Gail Hecks and sound engineer and stage manager Allan Noel.

Kimberly Demmery and Brian Kolb star in Severance Play. Photo by Hayley Silvers

 

A world premiere and the winner of The Elite’s Playwright Initiative, Severance Play by Michael Perlmutter is a biting dramatic comedy that is like a jolt of fresh air. Set in a small

company where “office politics, romance, sales, lies, sex and maybe a little murder” abound, Severance Play starts off with a bang (or is that a head?) and doesn’t let up until the final bow. It’s brash, twisted and sexy. Director Brian Robert Harris keeps things tight and fast, and the choice of soundtrack is a stroke of genius, as is the decision to do the play in the round.

The cast, including the dynamic Kimberly Demmery, Brian Kolb and Maddie Boyd, creates an evening of theater that’s hard to beat. Alas, there’s only one weekend left to the run of the play (with an added show on Thursday), so act fast.   

SPTC and The Elite have more than risen to the challenges of these difficult times. They have shown us that the new normal is really quite wonderful.  


Rapture Blister Burn through Nov. 28 at Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 S. Seventh St., Santa Paula. For more information, call 805-525-4645 or visit www.santapaulatheatercenter.org.

Severance Play through Nov. 21 at The Elite, 2731 S. Victoria Ave., Oxnard. For more information, call 805-483-5118 or visit www.theelite.org.