Let your freak flag fly: Original play at Tenderloin theater is sensational

Valerie Demicheva
The Guardsman

The EXIT Theatre presents “Left-Handed Darling,” an original piece written by a former City College student. Nikita Schoen’s story focuses on Calliope Darling – played with brilliant naiveté by Amanda Ortmayer – a young girl whose parents are joined at the hip and isolated by “freakishness.”

“Left-Handed Darling” is a psychological tragedy with a tinge of gore, and layers of subtext that stew in the mind long after the spectacle is over.

When Calliope’s parents forbid her to see the new vaudevillian circus, she predictably finds it appealing and defies them to attend the show.  After that plot catalyst is out of the way, we enter a magical world of empathetic and entertaining freaks who clutch the heart with their predicaments and drop kick the stomach with their deeds.

Before the show begins, a gargantuan mask warns the audience: “The tale which here unfolds deals plainly with those members of our race which have been dubbed monstrosities, aberrations, freaks, nature’s mistakes. Smelling salts have been made available at our medical station should faintness overcome the ladies. With that being said, welcome to our show.”

In an opening scene Ortmayer plays with ironic buoyancy. Calliope’s father (Don Wood) preserves a dead rat inside a jar to show his daughter that death is not goodbye. Calliope’s regard for death unwittingly wreaks havoc on her family. The actual gore is never seen: instead it’s written into the characters’ monologues by 21-year-old Schoen, a first-time playwright.

After a year of coaching under Foul Play’s New Writers Program, Schoen wrote the entire script in a month. She also credits development to City College’s creative writing professor, Richard Simon. “He’s just a really great teacher,” Schoen said.

Schoen invites the audience to enter Calliope’s world through imagination. The stage is bare and dark. The only real set piece is a square of painted sky, framed by a red windowpane at the top of a sturdy curved staircase that is accessible exclusively to Calliope.

Rooms are delineated by lighting that focuses on specific platforms to create a sense of space. None of this takes away from the sensational story. Instead, the skeletal background allows the strong performances and ornate costumes to rule in Schoen’s extravaganza.

The side-show draws Calliope from the very minute she finds the flier advertising the show.

As she watches the freaks performing stunts, Calliope is star-struck by Venus (Mikka Bonnel), a beautiful armless freak who types with her toes. Venus behaves like a femme fatale, but speaks like a miserable creature; if only she had arms, she imagines, she wouldn’t shock people and she might work as a secretary.

The sheisty ringleader and freak exploiter is the most beguiling character. The freaks oscillate between fear and unfounded trust for Sugarchurch (Mikl-em). By the time Sugarchurch drawls halfway through his lyrical defense of his work, even a “normal” creature can imagine succumbing to this pimp of deformity.

The final question weighing on the freaks is whether or not to  accept the notion that it’s not the freaks, but rather the enthralled gawkers in the audience who are desperate to escape their lives.

Performance Details:
Left-Handed Darling
Presented by Foul Play at The Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy Street, San Francisco
Phone (415) 394-4833
July 14 to August 13, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $20 to $30 Sliding Scale — Available at the door and online at BrownPaperTickets.com
Student / Starving Artist (email for passcode): $15


The Guardsman