From Exit Theatre and Foul Play Productions comes "Left-Handed Darling," the delightfully creepy debut of 21-year-old S.F. playwright Nikita Schoen. The play emerged from Foul Play's New Writers' Program, a yearlong workshop that guides students through developing and staging scripts. Schoen is its first protégée, and Left-Handed Darling is a testament to the program as well as her talent.
Left-Handed Darling spins the tale of Calliope Darling (Amanda Ortmayer), a girl coming of age in the Dust Bowl era, who is confined to her house by her parents. They aren't particularly strict, but they do have a dark secret that keeps them hidden indoors. Calliope, however, refuses to stay home and sneaks out at night to visit the neighborhood sideshow. When her parents catch wind of her nightly escapades -- and her new friendships with the odd and colorful performers -- they forbid her to go back. They craft a plan to send her away to boarding school, but Calliope has grisly plans of her own.
Initially, Calliope's naiveté comes across as cloying -- a youthful insistence that we worry will go unquestioned. But Schoen undermines these initial expectations and delivers a well-rounded and shocking character that continues to haunt after the lights come up.
Calliope's innocence is also balanced by the jaded, morose, and dramatic personalities of the sideshow performers as well as their leering boss, Sugarchurch (Mikl-em). Schoen's childlike indulgence, her affinity for Greek mythology, and her knack with the surreal are reminiscent of the author Sarah Ruhl, who also began writing plays at a young age.
Schoen's writing is rich and sensual. To explain death to Calliope, Sugarchurch asks her, "What happens to cotton candy in the rain? What happens to Junebugs in July?" Schoen also delivers bawdy freakishness in a courtroom scene filled with sideshow characters and adds more than one gruesome twist.
Mikl-em gives an enthralling performance as Sugarchurch, captivating the audience as he reels Calliope in. Most cast members have dual roles and do an excellent job of transforming themselves. Sean Owens, who plays one of the freaks as well as a concerned neighbor, is particularly unrecognizable in his transformation and equally hilarious in both his roles. Foul Play gave Left-Handed Darling the premiere it deserved, furnishing the production with excellent costuming (Kathryn Wood) and lighting (Richard Board).
The final moments of the play, however, seem rushed. Throughout the second act, Schoen tears away at the reality she's invented, and her frayed ends unravel the audience as well as the plot. The moment when we most want to understand Calliope is the sudden, final twist when things become most surreal. The result is extraordinary, but we wished for a little more time to savor it.