Curtain Critic: The First Annual Book burners is a dark humor delight

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Space 55 shown Sept. 18, 2018. (Lisa Diethelm/DD)

Despite its fiery title, no books were harmed during the two-hour runtime of Space 55’s “The First Annual Bookburners’ Convention.”

Director Dennis Frederick’s performance of “The First Annual Bookburners’ Convention” is an offbeat delight full of thoughtful philosophy, intriguing character dynamics and cleverly dark humor.

Playwright Ashley Naftule’s story centers around the Opera Street Bookshop, which accepts books—and people—regardless of their origin: it is owned by a whimsical witch and two siblings who are haunted by the death of their sister Cynthia.

Sky Donovan stars as Francis, a kind-hearted nerd with a magnetic attraction to the unknown. When a sleazy customer known as Nice Guy Johnny (Brett Higginbotham) pawns off a cryptic tome, Francis decides to translate it, convinced it was written in the language of angels. Soon otherworldly forces are hot on his trail—and not all of them are as polite as Mr. Cold, the original owner of the book.

Through her robotic posture and Alexa-like delivery, Megan Holcomb depicts Mr. Cold as the perfect balance between eerily threatening and bizarrely likable. One of my favorite moments occurred after an intense showdown in Francis’s apartment: as Francis panted with fear, Mr. Cold calmly helped himself to the candy bowl, slipping an impolite amount of treats into his pockets.

Maybe it’s because I can relate to his love of Milky Ways, but I found myself enjoying every second Mr. Cold stalked around the stage, fixing Francis with an icy stare, or worse, the most awkward, toothy smile I’ve seen since I last cracked open my middle school yearbook.

Another scene-stealer is Julie Peterson as Foxing, an ancient, ABBA-loving demoness who, along with her sister Silverfish (Tessa Geelhood), is desperate to steal the strange book. Although Foxing hungers for human flesh, there is something oddly charming about her, thanks to Peterson’s comedic timing and the sweet, grandmotherly approach she uses to lure her victims in.

Clad in vivid colors that contrast with the rest of the cast’s more conventional clothes, Foxing and Silverfish operate on a slightly separate beat from the rest. While the other characters are more grounded in reality, the sisters, with their strange discussions of torture and fragrances, sometimes seem as though they stepped out of another, zanier play.

Occasionally, they wore threatening demon masks that muffled their voices and made them a little hard to hear at some points. Nevertheless, the two sisters were captivating whenever they were on stage: they brought tension of all kinds to the play.

Francis’s little sister and co-worker Aaron (Dayna Renee Donovan) gets considerably less screen time than her brother, but whenever the light is on her, she shines. Literally. Her costumes reflect her grungy, punk-rock aesthetic, and her black, sequined vest sparkles beautifully under the stage lights. With her vest glimmering in the light, Aaron was hard to ignore whenever she smoked, joked or flirted with demons on stage.

At one point, Aaron and a disguised Silverfish share an intriguing scene. As club music drones in the background, Aaron becomes quickly smitten. It’s a well-acted scene in which both actresses blossom. Yet as Silverfish continues to speak, and her mystery darkens into something more sinister, Aaron’s shifting expressions reflect the degradation of infatuation into fear.

One of the play’s most impressive strengths was its cinematic soundtrack. Sound designer Ilana Lydia weaves music of all genres throughout the scenes with subtle and impressive effectiveness. It’s the kind of sound design that is so good you don’t notice it at first; the atmospheric music creeps in at just the right moment, making you lost in the scene, until finally, the lights fall, the scene transitions, and you catch yourself stunned by how the sound design perfectly bolsters the story’s twists and turns.

Catch the craziness this Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., or this Sunday at 2 p.m, at Space55, 1524 North 18th Avenue. Tickets are $20 on space55.org.

Contact the columnist at [email protected]

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